A WHO official has said that existing vaccines should still offer protection to people with the Omicron variant and should reduce the risk of severe COVID-19.

The first lab tests of the recently discovered variant in South Africa have hinted that it can partially evade the Pfizer jab but this does not mean that Omicron can completely negate the vaccine’s efficacy.

Preliminary data also suggests that Omicron does not make people sicker than the Delta variant, along with others. WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told AFP news agency: “In fact, if anything, the direction is towards less severity.”

However, Ryan emphasised that there is still more research needed into the recent strain, adding “we have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation, and there’s no reason to expect that it wouldn’t be so [for Omicron]”.

The new South African study has found that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine may result in up to 40 times fewer neutralising antibodies against Omicron than against the original COVID-19 strain. However, Professor Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Africa Health Research Institute, said that vaccination combined with previous infection could still be effective in neutralising against Omicron. Boosters will also provide a significant benefit.

Omicron is the most heavily mutated COVID-19 strain found so far with over 30 changes to its spike protein. This protein allows the virus to infect and take over human cells and is also the target of most existing vaccines. The recent variant was first identified in South Africa, which is currently experiencing a surge in the number of COVID-19 reinfections.