Vaccines Alone Won't Stop Omicron COVID Variant, Says WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

World Health Organization (WHO) head Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has said vaccines alone will not get any country out of the Omicron variant "crisis".

It comes after the health agency yesterday stated that the variant of concern was present in 77 countries around the world.

Health authorities in Europe have been warning of a sharp increase in cases caused by the variant, which is thought to be even more transmissible than Delta and able to resist immunity.

It has been projected that Omicron will soon dominate in countries such as Denmark, Norway and the U.K.

Countries including the U.S. have strengthened advice on, or access to, booster shots in an effort to improve protection against the variant of concern.

Indeed, on December 9 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) director Dr Rochelle Walensky said the health agency was encouraging everyone aged 16 and older to get a booster shot since "initial data suggests that COVID-19 boosters help broaden and strengthen the protection against Omicron and other variants."

In the U.K. there have been reports of large queues outside vaccine centers after the country's prime minister Boris Johnson set a target of offering booster shots to all adults by the end of the year in response to the Omicron variant.

While boosters will play an important role as countries around the world aim to protect themselves against the new variant, Dr Tedros stressed that other measures would be crucial as well.

"I need to be very clear," he said. "Vaccines alone will not get any country out of this crisis.

"It's not vaccines instead of masks. It's not vaccines instead of distancing. It's not vaccines instead of ventilation or hand hygiene. Do it all. Do it consistently. Do it well."

Tedros also voiced concerns that rapid booster rollouts could repeat "vaccine hoarding" seen previously and make the issue of vaccine inequity worse.

"Let me be very clear: WHO is not against boosters. We're against inequity. Our main concern is to save lives, everywhere."

Pfizer and BioNTech are currently working on a new COVID vaccine that is specific to the Omicron variant. In a press release published on December 8, the companies said they hope to have it available for March 2022.

Meanwhile, Johnson & Johnson has also announced it has begun work on the design and development of a new vaccine against Omicron specifically and said it would "rapidly progress it into clinical studies if needed" in a November 29 press release.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaking at the WHO headquarters in Geneva on October 18th, 2021. The health agency leader has expressed concerns about vaccine hoarding. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty