Early data indicates the Omicron Covid variant may more easily reinfect people who have already had the virus or been vaccinated than previous variants, but could also cause milder disease, the WHO said today.
"Emerging data from South Africa suggests increased risk of reinfection with Omicron," World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters.
He added that "there is also some evidence that Omicron causes milder disease than Delta".
But the WHO leader stressed that more data was needed before drawing firm conclusions, and urged countries everywhere to boost their surveillance to help provide a clearer picture of how Omicron is behaving.
It comes as BioNTech and Pfizer have said a three-shot course of their Covid-19 vaccine was able to neutralise the new Omicron variant in a laboratory test.
The hopeful assessments came as global concern grew over the heavily mutated variant, which has forced dozens of nations to re-impose border restrictions and raised the possibility of a return to economically punishing lockdowns.
Even if it does turn out that Omicron causes less severe disease, Mr Tedros warned against slacking off vigilance against the virus.
"Any complacency now will cost lives," he warned.
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan agreed, pointing out that so far the data indicates the variant is "efficiently transmitting, and probably more efficiently transmitting even than the Delta variant."
"That does not mean that the virus is unstoppable," he said.
"But it means the virus is more efficient at transmitting between human beings. And therefore we have to redouble our efforts to break those chains of transmission to protect ourselves to protect others."
Even if the new variant turns out to be less dangerous than previous variants, if it transmits more rapidly, it could still sicken more people, overburden health systems, "and more people die," he said.
The WHO experts stressed the importance of vaccination, highlighting that even if vaccines prove less effective against Omicron, as some data indicates, they are still expected to provide significant protection against severe disease.
Chief WHO scientist Soumya Swaminathan pointed out that the studies done so far were small and that the reduction in the "neutralising activity" varied dramatically between different studies, from four to five fold in some experiments to up to 40-fold in others.
They also only looked at the neutralisation of antibodies, when "we know the immune system is much more complex than that," she said.
"So I think it's premature to conclude that this reduction neutralising activity would result in a significant reduction in vaccine effectiveness," she said. "We do not know that."
Top US scientist Anthony Fauci echoed the WHO's view, saying Omicron did not appear worse than prior strains based on early indications - and was possibly milder.
The new variant is "clearly highly transmissible," very likely more so than Delta, the current dominant global strain, Dr Fauci told AFP.
"It almost certainly is not more severe than Delta," he added. "There is some suggestion that it might even be less severe."
Covid-19 has killed more than 5.2 million people around the world since the coronavirus was first declared in late 2019, with scientists and health experts saying vaccinations and continued social distancing are keys to defeating the disease.
But vaccine requirements have led to resistance in many countries, either because of misinformation and conspiracy theories or the economic and logistical impact of such mandates.
Around 4,000 people protested in Brussels against a plan by the Belgian government to make vaccines compulsory for health workers from early next year.
"We are in favour of vaccination, but why only health workers?" said one nurse. "Because everyone must be vaccinated, it is everyone or no one."
Meanwhile, Poland said that from 15 December, it will restrict the number of people allowed in churches, restaurants and theatres, and make vaccination compulsory for healthcare workers, teachers and the military from 1 March.