The highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus is quickly overtaking the Delta variant to become the dominant strain in the world, a senior World Health Organization (WHO) official warned on January 11, in light of growing scientific evidence suggesting that the omicron variant bypasses the immunity provided by two-dose COVID-19 vaccine regimens.

During a virtual question and answer session, Infectious Disease Epidemiologist and COVID-19 Technical Lead at the WHO, Maria Van Kerkhove, said, “Omicron has been detected in all countries where we have good sequencing and it’s likely to be in all countries around the world. It is quickly, in terms of its circulation, overtaking Delta. And so omicron is becoming the dominant variant that is being detected.”

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While Kerkhove acknowledged that the omicron variant produces relatively milder symptoms than the Delta variant, she warned, as the WHO had done earlier, against treating omicron like the flu, saying, “it’s not a mild disease” as “people are still being hospitalized for omicron.”

The WHO’s warning coincides with a marked surge in global COVID-19 infections since the turn of the year. As per the WHO’s COVID-19 Weekly Epidemiological Update, the world reported 15 million new infections between January 3 and January 9, a whopping 55% increase over the numbers reported a week earlier. Meanwhile, 43,000 new deaths were reported in the same week.

In terms of country-specific data, the WHO report stated that the US saw the highest number of new infections, 4,610,359, up 73% from the week earlier. France was a distant second with 1,597,203 new infections, a 46% increase, while the UK was third with 1,217,258 new cases, a 10% increase over the previous week.

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The WHO Technical Advisory Group on COVID-19 Vaccine Composition (TAG-CO-VAC), meanwhile, said that the composition of extant COVID-19 vaccines would need to be updated over time “to provide WHO-recommended levels of protection against infection and disease by VOCs, including omicron and future variants.”

As of January 9, 2022, total global COVID-19 cases stood at 304 million, while deaths stood at 5.4 million.