The World Health Organization's chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan said the new coronavirus variant Omicron is very transmissible but that people should not panic about it.
Swaminathan said during an interview at the Reuters Next conference on Friday that the right response was to be prepared and cautious and not to panic in face of the new variant.
"How worried should we be We need to be prepared and cautious, not panic, because we're in a different situation to a year ago," Swaminathan said.
The emergence of the new variant was unwelcome, she said, but added that the world was much better prepared given the development of vaccines since the start of the pandemic.
Much remains unknown about Omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa last month and has been spotted in at least two dozen countries. Parts of Europe were already grappling with a wave of infections of the Delta variant.
"We need to wait, lets hope it's milder ... but it's too early to conclude about the variant as a whole," Swaminathan said.
The WHO has urged countries to boost healthcare capacity and vaccinate their people to fight a surge in COVID-19 cases driven by the Omicron variant, saying travel curbs could buy time but alone were not the answer.
"Delta accounts for 99% of infections around the world. This variant would have to be more transmissible to out-compete and become dominant worldwide. It is possible, but it's not possible to predict," Swaminathan said.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Stephanie Nebehay and Josephine Mason; Writing by Keith Weir and Alexander Smith; Editing by Catherine Evans)