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On news of the omicron variant, countries block flights from African countries

NOEL KING, HOST:

All right. With us now is Dr. Margaret Harris. She is a public health doctor and a spokesperson for the World Health Organization.

Good morning, Dr. Harris.

MARGARET HARRIS: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So you now have more countries providing information about what they're seeing with omicron. What does the WHO know about transmissibility?

HARRIS: So right now, actually, what we know is we'd like to know a lot more. But the important thing is that, yes, we have seen there are many more positive cases in South Africa and that the number of positive cases has gone up very quickly. So when you look at sort of the percentage of tests going through the laboratories, omicron began to be - the percentage of omicron tests coming through really rose very quickly. Now that doesn't necessarily tell you about transmissibility. It certainly tells you that it's very efficient. It's competing very effectively with the dominant strain, which is delta, at the moment. But that's in South Africa.

KING: Efficient - that is an interesting way of putting it. Another big question, Doctor, is whether this particular variant is going to make people sicker or sick in a different way. We heard Dr. Fauci, you know, quoting South African officials, who said, this is a different virus. What do we know about how sick it makes people and whether that's of real concern?

HARRIS: That's one of the critical questions. And that is also a reason we classified this as a variant of concern. We want countries to look at who's coming into hospital, to look at what particular strain they've got and whether or not they were vaccinated, so we can understand exactly whether this particular strain is causing those problems. Now, we don't have that information at the moment. Some of the reports we've got about symptoms are not clear because some of the clusters were in young, healthy adults - you know, students, who are people who traditionally with this virus tend to have the milder illness. So we just don't have enough - a full enough picture to make that kind of determination yet.

KING: What else do you want to know? What questions are top of mind for you?

HARRIS: The other big question, of course, is, how does it behave with the vaccines? And your reporter explained it extremely well, that you do the tests in the laboratory to understand whether or not the plasma from people who are vaccinated can actually stop the virus. But the other big question is, what's happening in the real world? - because what happens in the lab isn't the complete picture. You've got - your immune system's very complex. And we want to know whether people who are fully vaccinated are ending up in hospital with this particular strain of the virus. The vaccines were designed basically to keep people out of hospital. And they've stood up, and they've done that very well. So we really need to know whether this particular version is going to change that picture.

KING: The U.S. and other countries are blocking flights from southern Africa. Are travel bans actually effective?

HARRIS: So there's limited evidence that if you have a very short period while you're getting everything ready, that can help you for a little while. It basically gives you breathing space. We're not keen on travel bans, as you know, because of the great disruption. And in this instance, you can understand how southern Africa - you know, South Africa should get a medal for the quality of their science and for their openness. And they're feeling like they're being punished. So you can understand why travel bans can be - have very dire consequences.

But they can give you time. But our real message to every country is, make the most of that time. Build up your hospital capacity. Build up your tracking and tracing. Build up your surveillance. Prepare.

KING: Prepare - South Africa has a vaccination rate of only about 24% - so 1 in 4 people who are eligible. Are low vaccination rates contributing to the development of new variants?

HARRIS: This is what we have been concerned about all along. And this is why we said right from the beginning, vaccinate the highest-risk groups, the people in whom the virus is going to circulate a lot - because they get a lot sicker. Vaccinate those people first all around the world, so that you really limit the space for the virus to copy itself. So, you know, we were taken as just wanting to be the good guys (laughter). In fact, it's the most effective and useful, self-interested thing you could do.

KING: What else could be done to boost vaccination rates across the world?

HARRIS: A great deal - in - many of the resource-rich countries have talked about sharing vaccination - vaccines, but they haven't really fulfilled those promises - also, waiving intellectual property, also technology transfer, so that people can make the vaccines in the other parts of the world where they really need them.

KING: Dr. Margaret Harris with the World Health Organization - thank you for taking the time for us. We appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KING: I'd like to quickly correct something I said in that interview. The U.S. is not blocking flights from several African countries. Instead, it has put restrictions in place for certain travelers.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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