It seems to be spreading rapidly in parts of South Africa and scientists are concerned that its unusually high number of mutations could make it more transmissible and lead to immune spin.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said there was a “high to very high” risk that the new variant would spread in Europe.
WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on SARS-COV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), an independent group of experts, met Friday to discuss the variant, a WHO statement said.
The advisers recommended the WHO designate the variant as “care,” referring to the large number of mutations of the variant, the possibility of an increased risk of reinfection and other evidence.
A number of studies are underway, and the WHO will update member states and the public as needed, the WHO statement said.
WHO called on countries to enhance their surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand coronavirus variants.
“It initially looked like some cluster outbreaks, but as of yesterday, the indication came from our scientists from the Genomic Surveillance Network that they were observing a new variant,” Joe Fahla, South Africa’s Minister of Health, said on Thursday, emphasizing that It is now unclear where the variant first emerged.
South African officials initially said there was one confirmed case in a South African traveler to Hong Kong. Subsequently Hong Kong health authorities on Friday identified a second case of the B.1.1.529 variant among returning travelers on the same floor of a designated quarantine hotel.
Also on Friday, the Belgian government said that one individual who had recently arrived from abroad, and had not been vaccinated, had tested positive for the new variant, which was the first case in Europe.
Tulio de Oliveira, the director of South Africa’s Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said the variant has “many more mutations than we expected,” adding it is “spreading very fast, and we expect to see pressure in the health System in the coming days and weeks. ”
Viruses, including those that cause Covid-19, mutate regularly and most new mutations do not have a significant impact on the nature of the virus and the disease they cause.
Dr Ashish Jha, dean of the University of Brown’s School of Public Health, told CNN that the variant did “act differently”, and it “looks like it’s much more contagious than even the Delta variant.”
President Joe Biden will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Esvatini, Mozambique and Malawi, according to US advice. It.
This does not apply to American citizens and legal permanent residents. As with all international travelers, they must still test negative before traveling.
What we know about the new variant
Lawrence Young, a virologist and a professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School in the United Kingdom, said the omicron variant was “very worrying.”
“It’s the most mutated version of the virus we’ve seen before. The variant produces some changes we’ve seen before in other variants but never all together in one virus. It also has novel mutations,” Young said. In a statement.
Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Center for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, said in a statement the number of mutations on the spike protein was “unprecedented.”
“The Spike Protein Gene [is] The protein that is the target of most vaccines. There is therefore a concern that the variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants, ”Ferguson said.
Sharon Peacock, a professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said that although the overall number of Covid-19 cases is relatively low in South Africa, there has been a rapid increase in the last seven days.
She said that while 273 new infections were recorded on November 16, the figure had risen to more than 1,200 cases by November 25, with more than 80% coming from Gothic province.
“The epidemiological picture suggests that the variant may be more transmissible, and some mutations are consistent with improved transmissibility,” Peacock said in a comment shared by the UK’s science media center.
She added, although the significance of the mutations and their combination is unknown, some of those present in the latter variant are associated in others with immune evasion.
Jha also said that scientists are concerned about the speed with which the Omicron variant has taken off. “This one became dominant very quickly in South Africa, in the regions where it was found, in a matter of days to weeks as opposed to months,” he told CNN.
What we do not know
Pave, de Olivira, Ferguson, Jha and other scientists have said it is too early to say the full impact of these mutations on vaccination efficacy.
De Olivira stressed that the Covid-19 shots are still the best tool against the virus, and in addition, laboratories still need to be conducted to test vaccine and antibody evasion.
“I do not think we will see a situation where the vaccines will be useless,” said Jha. “I think that’s very unlikely. The question is, is it a tiny hit to vaccination efficacy, or is it a big hit? I think we’ll get some preliminary data probably in the next few days.”
More studies also need to be conducted to understand the clinical severity of the variant compared to previous variants.
It is also unclear where the new mutation emerged from. While it was first identified in South Africa, it may have come from elsewhere.
“It is important not to assume that the variant first emerged in South Africa,” said Peacock.
Vaccine maker Moderna said Friday that the combination of mutations seen in the new Omicron variant represents a “significant potential risk to accelerate the gaining of natural and vaccination-induced immunity.”
The company said it is working quickly to test the ability of its vaccination to neutralize the new variant and data are expected in the coming weeks.
AstraZeneca, another vaccination manufacturer, said it was looking to understand the impact of the omicron variant on its coronavirus vaccination, and is testing its antibody combination therapy against the new variant.
The platform used in the vaccine enables the company to respond quickly to new variants, a spokesperson for the company said Friday.
“AstraZeneca is also conducting research into locations where the variant has been identified, namely in Botswana and Esvatini, which will enable us to collect real world data from waxsevria against this new virus variant,” the spokesperson said.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is not currently authorized for use in the US.
Johnson & Johnson said it is testing its vaccine against the new variant.
Scientists have praised South African health authorities for their quick response to a Covid-19 outbreak in the country’s Gauteng province, which led to the discovery of the new variant.
When cases in the province began to rise at a higher rate than elsewhere, health experts focused on sequencing samples of the tested positive, which allowed them to quickly identify the B.1.1.529 variant.
Pave said the South African health ministry and its scientists “should be applauded in their response, their science, and in sounding the alarm to the world.”
She added that the development shows how important it is to have excellent sequencing capabilities and to share expertise with others.
The reaction to the announcement of the new variant discovered by South African health authorities is also accurate.
UK officials announced on Thursday six African countries would be added to England’s travel “red list” after the UK Health Security Agency flagged concern over the variant.
UK Health Minister Sajid Javid has said flights to the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Esvatini and Zimbabwe would be suspended from Friday dinner and all six countries would be added to the red list – meaning UK residents and British and Irish nationals. Arriving home from the point of departure must pass a 10-day hotel quarantine at their own expense.
On Friday, Javid said it was “highly likely” that the B.1.1.529 variant had spread across South Africa. In a statement to the UK House of Commons Friday Javid expressed concern that it could “pose a substantial risk to public health.”
European Union states have agreed to impose temporary restrictions on all travel within the EU. From South Africa over the new Cowid-19 variant, the block said Friday.
Member states have agreed to “introduce speedy restrictions on all travel in the EU from 7 countries in the South Africa region: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe,” said EU Commission spokesman Eric Mamer.
Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Israel, Turkey, Egypt, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan have also announced new restrictions on travelers coming from the region.
Canada will “ban the entry of foreign nationals … who have traveled through South Africa in the last 14 days,” due to the new coronavirus variant, said Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos at a press conference on Friday.
“Canadians and permanent residents and those with a right of entry into Canada will be tested upon arrival, [and] They will quarantine until they get the result of a negative test, “according to Duclos.
South Africa has fully vaccinated 35.37% of its adult population and has seen its rate of people initiating vaccination fall in recent days, according to data from the country’s Department of Health.
CNN’s Jacqueline Howard, Kaitlan Collins, John Bonifield, Steve Almasy, Duarte Mendonca, Niamh Kennedy, Mia Alberti, Andrew Carey, Amir Tal, Antonia Mortensen, Tim Lister, Nadine Schmidt, Virginia Langmaid and Melissa Alonso have contributed reporting.