WHO says omicron is life-threatening for unvaccinated, elderly

January 13, 2022: On Tuesday, The World Health Organization said the Covid omicron variant could result in life-threatening illness for the unvaccinated, the elderly, and people with underlying conditions.

Dr. Mike Ryan, director of the WHO’s health emergencies program, said the nonvaccinated people face a higher risk that an omicron infection will make them sick or even kill them.

“Omicron still represents a huge threat to their life and a huge threat to their health,” Ryan said of the unvaccinated during a Q&A live-streamed Tuesday on the WHO’s social media channels.

Ryan said vaccinated people, on the different hand, generally experience mild illness if they get a breakthrough infection.

“People should look at this in terms of really seriously considering getting out there and getting vaccinated,” Ryan said.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the Covid-19 technical lead of WHO, said the elder and people with underlying conditions face an elevated risk of death from omicron compared with different groups.

“We do know that mortality increases with omicron with increasing age,” Van Kerkhove said. “We have data from some countries that show that people with one underlying condition are at an increased risk of hospitalization and death, even if you have omicron as compared to the delta.”

Van Kerkhove said a lower proportion of people die from Covid during the omicron wave, and the overall risk of high disease and hospitalization is lower than delta. Although, she cautioned that less severity does not mean omicron only causes mild illnesses.

“It is not just a mild disease,” Van Kerkhove said. “This is important due to people are still being hospitalized for omicron.”

Van Kerkhove is warning people should not become fatalistic and resign themselves to infection, which cautioned that the long-term health implications of catching omicron remain unknown. She also said people should get vaccinated, wear a well-fitting mask, avoid crowds and work from home if possible.

Ryan said that health outcomes from viral infections often depend on a person’s baseline level of health, including whether the immune system is robust or not. People with diabetes, for instance, are not as well equipped to fight off the virus.

“We can say that an omicron variant causes, on average, a less severe disease in any human being, but that’s on average,” Ryan said. “There are hundreds of thousands of people in the world in hospital as we speak with the omicron variant, and for them, that’s a very serious disease.”