Existing vaccines should still protect people who contract the Omicron variant from severe Covid cases, a World Health Organization (WHO) official says.

It comes as the first lab tests of the new variant in South Africa suggest it can partially evade the Pfizer jab.

Researchers say there was a “very large drop” in how well the vaccine’s antibodies neutralised the new strain.

But the WHO’s Dr Mike Ryan said there was no sign Omicron would be better at evading vaccines than other variants.

“We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation, and there’s no reason to expect that it wouldn’t be so” for Omicron, Dr Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, told AFP news agency.

He said initial data suggested Omicron did not make people sicker than the Delta and other strains. “If anything, the direction is towards less severity,” he said.

The new South African study – which has not yet been peer-reviewed – found the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine may be up to 40 times less effective against Omicron than the original Covid strain.

But Omicron’s ability to escape vaccine antibodies is “incomplete”, said Prof Alex Sigal, a virologist at the Africa Health Research Institute, who led the research.