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Vladimir Putin has compared omicron to a “live vaccine”, downplaying the potential risks posed by the variant which has now lapped the globe.
On Tuesday the Russian President suggested fears about omicron, a highly mutated coronavirus strain which is designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organization, may turn out to be “premature”.
“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Mr Putin said. “They say it’s not that virulent. Some specialists even call it a live vaccine.”
Live vaccines include an attenuated, or weakened, form of the virus that causes a particular disease to trigger an immune response that will generate protective antibodies, but is not strong enough to make an individual sick. The measles mumps and rubella (MMR) and yellow fever vaccines both include attenuated virus, for instance.
There has been some early evidence from South Africa suggesting that omicron may trigger milder disease than previous variants.
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A study of 166 patients in hospitals in the Tshwane district of Gauteng province - the epicentre of the omicron outbreak - shows that patients are predominantly younger than those hospitalised in the first and second waves of the pandemic, and they are less likely to need oxygen.
But Eleanor Riley, a professor of infectious disease immunology at the University of Edinburgh, told The Telegraph that letting omicron spread uncontrolled is not a sensible strategy, especially if it proves to evade vaccines.
This is a concern because, of the 50 mutations detected in omicron, 32 are in the spike protein – which the current crop of vaccines target to boost the body’s immune system.
“He [Mr Putin] might be right if it really is very very mild,” she said. “But letting it spread in an unconstrained manner is not a risk any of us should take given the information we have currently.”
Prof Riley added that, if the level of protection offered by vaccines takes a hit due to the omicron variant, then “things will get a lot worse before they get better” and “more restrictions are inevitable”.
Mr Putin’s comments come after the head of the World Health Organization in Europe warned that travel bans will do little to combat omicron as the variant is already “everywhere”, adding that it has already been identified in 21 countries in the region. Worldwide, it has now been found in well over 40 nations - including two cases in Russia.
“As surveillance capacity and genomic sequencing is going to be scaled up more and more countries surely will report on cases of omicron,” Dr Hans Kluge told a press briefing on Tuesday.
He also stressed that there are still huge unknowns about how the variant behaves. “It has yet to be seen how and whether the latest Covid-19 variant of concern, omicron, will be more transmissible and more severe,” he said.
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