(Reuters) - Many countries have not reached their peak in cases of the highly transmissible Omicron variant of the coronavirus and measures imposed to curb its spread should be eased slowly, the World Health Organization's technical lead on COVID-19 said on Tuesday.
"We are urging caution because many countries have not gone through the peak of Omicron yet. Many countries have low levels of vaccination coverage with very vulnerable individuals within their populations," Maria Van Kerkhove told an online briefing.
"And so now is not the time to lift everything all at once. We have always urged, always (be) very cautious, in applying interventions as well as lifting those interventions in a steady and in a slow way, piece by piece. Because this virus is quite dynamic," she added.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the U.N. agency was concerned about a narrative taking hold in some countries that "because of vaccines, and because of Omicron's high transmissibility and lower severity, preventing transmission is no longer possible, and no longer necessary.
"Nothing could be further from the truth," Tedros told the briefing. "More transmission means more deaths. We are not calling for any country to return to so-called lockdown. But we are calling on all countries to protect their people using every tool in the toolkit, not vaccines alone."
He added: "It's premature for any country to surrender or to declare victory."
WHO's emergencies chief Mike Ryan, addressing the same briefing, urged countries to chart their own path out of the pandemic and not blindly follow others in relaxing measures.
"I think it's a transition phase for many countries, not every country in the same situation. Those countries who are making decisions to open up more broadly also need to be sure of capacity to reintroduce measures, with community acceptance, if needed. So as if we open the doors quickly, you better be very well able to close them very quickly as well."
Denmark and Austria last week became the latest countries to relax COVID-19 restrictions, after similar moves by Britain, Ireland and the Netherlands, though other European nations planned new curbs to battle record numbers of infections.
In a separate online briefing earlier on Tuesday, Dr. Boris Pavlin of WHO's COVID-19 Response Team said the emerging BA.2 form of Omicron does not seem to be any more severe than the original BA.1 form.
The global response to the pandemic has created tens of thousands of tonnes of medical waste, including discarded syringes, used test kits and old vaccine bottles, threatening human health and the environment, a WHO report said.
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