Omicron COVID variant no reason to panic - WHO rep. tells 'Post'

WHO representative in Israel Dr. Michel Tieren: "No reason to believe COVID-19 pandemic is ending."

A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.  (photo credit: REUTERS/ DENIS BALIBOUSE)
A logo is pictured on the World Health Organization (WHO) headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland.
(photo credit: REUTERS/ DENIS BALIBOUSE)

Countries across the globe pressed the panic button over the weekend as news of a potentially more infectious variant started to surface. But according to Dr. Michel Thieren, it should have been expected that there would be another powerful variant and “there was no reason to believe that coronavirus was nearing its end.”

Thieren, the World Health Organization’s representative in Israel, said that even when there is not a single case of COVID in a specific country, “we cannot say we want this to be over – this cannot be.”

Therefore, he said countries need to act accordingly.

“We cannot panic,” Thieren said. “To be cautious is not to be panicked. We need to be cautious with Omicron, but the rules of the game have not changed. The same measures apply. This is the same pandemic.”

He praised Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz for taking “prompt” and “aggressive” action, but said that measures must be data-driven and consistent.

 Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the cabinet meeting, November 28, 2021.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST) Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the cabinet meeting, November 28, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

“There is always this reaction to close the border and we may have to abide by a precautionary principle and take a few hours or days to re-assess, but the thing is that we often close the border but what we really need to do is see how people are traveling, in general,” he explained.

According to Thieren, opening the borders in Israel came with a general relaxation of COVID directives, which was logically approved as daily cases declined. As such, just as more people started entering the country from abroad, so too they stopped wearing masks, gathering and being more less strict about checking Green Passes.

“A lot of relaxation goes along with open borders and it should be the opposite,” he said, stressing that it is paramount to enforce COVID-19 rules at home and during travel to protect ourselves from the virus. And this is something that cannot be done if planes stop flying.

“If we have reasonable reason to believe that the plane is taking off with everyone negative [for COVID] and the plane arrives and people are tested and those people observe a minimum quarantine period to make sure they did not [catch the virus] on the way, then people can fly,” Thieren said.

The Omicron variant has already been reported in nearly 10 countries and three continents, and two cases were confirmed in Israel. With the variant so spread out already, Thieren said, action should be “less about shutting down the entire planet and more about ensuring absolute observance of travel safety.”

He said that while Israel and some other countries may have beaten the Delta wave, many interpreted the decline in cases wrong – the country needed to stay just as vigilant.  

“During periods of tranquility, we can relax measures but we cannot brutally suppress them as if the pandemic is over,” Thieren stressed. “Anytime we have suppressed measures too quickly, we have given leeway to the virus to surprise us with another onset."

 Michel Thieren (credit: MAAYAN JAFFE-HOFFMAN) Michel Thieren (credit: MAAYAN JAFFE-HOFFMAN)

He said that “if we keep doing that, we will never end this and we may run the same conversation in two years. The on-and-off response mode must stop.”

A mid-term view is what will stabilize the crisis, Thieren explained, noting that there are five stabilizing principles that should be followed:

• One: Vaccinate.

• Two: Administer boosters to keep people protected.

• Three: Wear masks, especially indoors.

• Four: Ventilate, especially classrooms.

• Five: Develop and embrace emerging therapies.

“Those five stabilizers do have an impact on mortality and transmission,” Thieren said. “This is how the pandemic can stop governing and determining our lives.”