The Omicron variant of COVID-19 can be deadly for those who are unvaccinated, the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization's Health Emergencies Program, said Tuesday during a briefing.

He described Omicron as a "massive threat" for those who are not vaccinated. Ryan said that “people should really look at this in terms of really seriously considering getting out there and getting vaccinated.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, said “we do know that mortality increases with Omicron with increasing age. We also have data from some countries that show that people with at least one underlying condition are at an increased risk of hospitalization and death, even if you have Omicron as compared to Delta."

The WHO says further data is needed to understand Omicron's severity
The WHO says further data is needed to understand Omicron's severity AFP / Sajjad HUSSAIN

The WHO also said Tuesday that Omicron is on course to infect 50% of Europeans in the next two months. Despite evidence that the variant causes less severe symptoms, the United Nations agency clarified that it should not yet be considered an endemic illness like the flu.

"We still have a huge amount of uncertainty and a virus that is evolving quite quickly, imposing new challenges,” said WHO Senior Emergency Officer for Europe Catherine Smallwood. “We are certainly not at the point where we are able to call it endemic."

The WHO reported nearly 15 million positive cases and 43,000 deaths for the first week of January.

“It is not just a mild disease,” Van Kerkhove said. “This is really important because people are still being hospitalized for Omicron.”