The omicron variant appears to be no worse than other coronavirus strains, top scientists from the WHO and the United States have said, while cautioning that more research is needed to judge its severity.
The hopeful assessments came as global concern grew over the heavily mutated variant, which has forced dozens of nations to re-impose border restrictions and raised the possibility of a return to economically punishing lockdowns.
While it is likely more transmissible than previous variants, "the preliminary data don't indicate that this is more severe," said the World Health Organisation's second-in-command.
"In fact, if anything, the direction is towards less severity," WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan told the AFP News Agency, insisting though that more research was needed.
Mr Ryan also said it was "highly unlikely" that omicron could fully sidestep protections provided by existing Covid-19 vaccines.
"We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation. … There's no reason to expect that it wouldn't be so" for omicron, he added, pointing to initial data from South Africa, where the strain was first reported.
However, Ryan acknowledged that it was possible that existing vaccines might prove less effective against omicron, which counts more than 30 mutations on the spike protein that dots the surface of the coronavirus and allows it to invade cells.
Early research released Wednesday indicated the highly-mutated Omicron variant can partially dodge protection from two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, bolstering the need for a third booster shot which appears to help restore immunity.
US president Joe Biden called the findings "encouraging", urging people to get their third jab to maximise protection.
The new data from Pfizer on vaccine effectiveness against Omicron is encouraging. This reinforces what my medical advisors have been emphasizing: that boosters give you the highest protection yet.
Anyone who is eligible and has not been boosted should go get a booster today.
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 8, 2021
Top US scientist Anthony Fauci echoed the WHO's view, saying omicron did not appear worse than prior strains based on early indications — and was possibly milder.
The new variant is "clearly highly transmissible," very likely more so than delta, the current dominant global strain, Dr Fauci said.
"It almost certainly is not more severe than delta," he said. "There is some suggestion that it might even be less severe."
But he noted it was important to not over-interpret the data because the populations being followed skewed young and were less likely to become hospitalised. Severe disease can also take weeks to develop.
"Then, as we get more infections throughout the rest of the world, it might take longer to see what's the level of severity."
Omicron found in 57 countries, but no deaths associated with it yet
The detection of the first omicron cases two weeks ago coincided with surges in infection numbers across the world, and the variant added fuel to concerns about a global Covid-19 resurgence.
Omicron has so far been found in 57 countries around the world, the WHO said. No deaths have yet been associated with the variant.
Mr Ryan stressed the need for all countries to help detect omicron cases and research its behaviour.
"The more and better data we collect in the next two weeks, (the better chances) of a clear conclusion regarding the implications of this variant," he said.
As European Union health ministers met Tuesday (local time) to find ways to coordinate their response, as many European nations tighten restrictions.
While the positive initial assessments of omicron helped lift the mood, especially among global markets as fears of another economic downturn subsided, the variant's emergence has highlighted that the fight against the pandemic is far from over.
Covid-19 has officially killed more than 5.2 million people around the world since it was first declared in late 2019, although the true toll is likely to be several times higher.
Scientists and health experts say vaccinations and continued social distancing remain key to defeating all variants of the virus, including omicron.
"The virus hasn't changed its nature," Mr Ryan said. "The rules of the game are still the same."
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.