New Omicron coronavirus variant is ‘of concern’, says WHO

The heavily mutated coronavirus strain linked to a sharp rise in cases in South Africa was designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, as more countries moved to tighten curbs on travel from the affected region.

The strain would be given the name Omicron, the WHO said after an emergency meeting on Friday, when its experts examined data from South Africa that appeared to show exponential growth in cases of the B.1.1.529 Sars-Cov-2 variant.

“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs,” the WHO said.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, told the Financial Times there was no estimate of total cases yet but that they were “increasing . . . overall” across South Africa. She said she was “concerned” because Omicron was “quite divergent” compared with other variants.

Earlier a host of countries including the UK and Israel, as well as EU member states, imposed travel restrictions on a group of southern African countries following mounting concern over the new variant. “Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, and current vaccines may be less effective against it,” Sajid Javid, UK health secretary, told the House of Commons.

Senior US officials said on Friday that the country will restrict travel from South Africa and several other African countries including Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi starting from Monday.

The ban, which was recommended by Dr Anthony Fauci, Joe Biden’s chief medical officer, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will not apply to US citizens or permanent residents. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, warned that the variant “could spread around the world within a few months”, as the first case was confirmed in Europe. She urged Europeans to get vaccinated, including having third booster shots.

Belgium’s health minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, confirmed the first EU case in samples taken from a traveller from Egypt. A confirmed case, in a returnee from Malawi, and two suspected cases were also detected in Israel, which also moved quickly to shut down almost all travel to and from most of Africa.

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister, warned that the country was on the “threshold of a national emergency” as it dispatched soldiers to take travellers recently returned from the affected countries into quarantine.

Hong Kong said it had recorded two cases of the variant following genome sequencing analysis, including in a traveller who arrived from South Africa. The countries affected by the UK travel restrictions are South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini.

South Africa on Friday accused the UK of rushing to ban travel before the variant had been properly assessed. “Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

 The variant has a highly unusual 50 mutations, including 32 in the spike receptor, suggesting it could evade the immune protection provided by vaccines and spread faster than Delta, though no definitive data are yet available. Van Kerkhove said that in areas where tests suggested Omicron was present “there is an increase in cases. I can’t say if we see increased transmissibility for sure”.

“We don’t want people to panic. This is why researchers are doing this work,” she said.

“We have seen a growth advantage . . we need to compare it against other variants.” It would take about two to three weeks to understand how the vaccines affected the Omicron variant, she said.

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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