The WHO designated the new strain of the coronavirus first identified in southern Africa as “of concern” on Friday, as a number of countries moved to ban air travel.
A new variant of Covid-19 first identified in Botswana and now responsible for a cluster of infections in South Africa is worrying scientists and policymakers. Many countries have already moved to ban air travel from and to southern Africa, and cases have been recorded among travellers in Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.
Here’s what we do and don’t know about the variant so far.
When and where was it identified?
The first confirmed case was identified in a sample from November 9, the WHO said on Friday.
The new variant was first detected by South African scientists on Tuesday. The scientists raised their concerns with the government on Wednesday, and on Friday the World Health Organisation (WHO) convened its technical working group on virus evolution, flagging it as a variant “of concern” and naming it Omicron.
“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs [variants of concern],” the WHO said.
Belgium became the first European country to announce a case.
Why is it worrying scientists?
The new variant carries more than 30 changes on its spike protein, the main target of the body’s immune responses. Scientists are concerned the new variant could be more likely to infect or reinfect people with immunity to earlier variants.
Many of the changes were previously found in variants such as Delta and Alpha, and are linked to the ability of the virus to spread more quickly and evade infection-blocking antibodies.
So far, South Africa has identified around 100 cases found primarily in Gauteng, its most populated province.
Richard Lessells, an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, told journalists at a press briefing on November 25 that cases increased rapidly in Gauteng in November, particularly in schools and among young people.
South Africa’s daily infection rate nearly doubled on Thursday to 2,465.
The variant’s exact properties are still unknown. Studies are underway to establish whether it is vaccine-resistant and if it could be responsible for a particularly severe version of the disease.
Can the vaccine be adapted to the new variant?
Vaccines can be updated to work against new variants. When the Beta and Delta variants emerged, scientists began preparation work to reformulate the current vaccines. It is important to remember, however, that there is no evidence so far that existing vaccines are ineffective. In the case of previous variants, they were found to be effective in reducing infections and fatalities.
US pharmaceutical company Novavax said in a statement on Friday that phase 2 trials of its jab showed it is likely to be effective against the Omicron variant, the news agency Reuters reported. The company said the vaccine could be ready for testing and manufacturing in the next few weeks.
Pfizer/BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson also said they had initiated investigations into the new strain.
What’s been the international reaction so far?
The United States is the latest country to ban travel from South Africa and seven other African nations on Friday, with the ban due to enter into force on Monday.
Several countries including Britain, Canada and some EU member states have also moved to shut air travel to and from the region.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights “should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”
South African health minister Joe Phaahla said at a media briefing that South Africa was acting with transparency and that the bans are “completely against the norms and standards” of the World Health Organisation, which hasn’t made such recommendation yet.
In the Middle East, Bahrein, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Morocco and Iran also introduced varying travel bans.
Stocks dropped in Asia, Europe and the United States, and the price of oil plunged 7 percent.