WHO chief, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has called for new ways to strengthen the global fight against pandemics [File: Laurent Gillieron/Reuters]

By Federica Marsi AL JAZEERA

The World Health Organization is discussing pandemic preparedness and response in a three-day special session, as concerns grow.

A three-day special session of the World Health Assembly (WHA) kicked off on Monday to discuss pandemic preparedness and response, amid concerns over the spread of the new Omicron variant.

The WHA normally meets each May but a special session was called for in a decision adopted by the World Health Organization (WHO) member states. The special session was the second in the history of the WHO, which was founded in 1948.

Representatives of WHO’s 194 member states will hold talks on new international rules for handling future outbreaks.

A draft resolution currently under review stops short of calling for the establishment of a “pandemic treaty” or a “legally binding instrument”, which proponents say would beef up the international response when a pandemic erupts.

The WHO has warned against countries hastily imposing travel curbs. However, bans have been introduced in recent days, with the UK, EU, and the US among those to impose restrictions on arrivals from mostly Southern African nations.

WHO chief says equitable vaccine distribution key to ending pandemic

The chief of the WHO says the spread of Omicron is a “test of our collective ability to respond to future pandemics”.

Addressing the WHA opening session, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said “courageous and compassionate leadership” and an “unshakeable commitment to solidarity” will be fundamental in ending the pandemic.

Tedros criticised the inequitable distribution of vaccines, adding that access to for all countries was necessary to limit the spread of the virus and its mutations.

South Africa preparing health facilities to cope with Omicron

South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla says the government is doing everything possible to prepare health facilities to cope with Omicron and scientists are working to establish whether it is more transmissible and whether vaccines can protect against severe illness.

Phaahla also said, at the news conference on Monday, officials are engaging with countries that imposed travel restrictions on Southern African countries to try to get them to reverse them.

South African epidemiologist Abdool Karim also said on Monday that not enough data had been collected to determine the clinical implications of Omicron compared to previous variants, and that re-infections are likely but that vaccinated people had less probability of developing serious symptoms.

WHO says Omicron poses ‘very high’ global risk, countries must prepare

The WHO says “the overall global risk related to… Omicron is… very high” and that it is likely to spread internationally with “severe consequences” in some areas.

In technical advice to its 194 member states, the UN health agency on Monday urged them to accelerate the vaccination of high-priority groups and to “ensure mitigation plans are in place” to maintain essential health services.

Further research is needed to better understand Omicron’s potential to evade the immunity induced by vaccines and previous infections. More data is expected in the coming weeks.

Dr Angelique Coetzee: Omicron causing “very mild symptoms” in people who are vaccinated

Dr Angelique Coetzee, who first spotted the new COVID-19 variant in South Africa, says that so far, people infected with Omicron have “very mild symptoms”, especially those who were inoculated after August.

Coetzee, of the South African Medical Association, said Omicron had raised concerns due to its more than 30 mutations, which might hinder vaccine effectiveness.

While it might take weeks for scientists to understand the implications of the new variant, hospital admissions in South Africa remain low, raising hopes that the new variant will not lead to increased hospitalisation rates.

Speaking to Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, Coetzee said the travel bans imposed on South Africa were “extremely premature.”