It’s unclear where the new variant, now named Omicron, arose but it was first detected by scientists in South Africa and has now been seen in travellers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
WHO says variant is of ‘concern’, names it ‘Omicron’
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential rise” of cases in the last few days although experts are still trying to determine if the new variant, named B.1.1.529, is actually responsible.
From about 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa registered the number of new daily cases rocket to 2,465 on Thursday.
Struggling to explain the sudden rise in cases, scientists studied virus samples from the outbreak and discovered the new variant.
In a statement on Friday, the World Health Organisation designated it as a “variant of concern,” naming it “omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet.
The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution met today to review what is known about the #COVID19 variant B.1.1.529.
They advised WHO that it should be designated a Variant of Concern.
WHO has named it Omicron, in line with naming protocols https://t.co/bSbVas9yds pic.twitter.com/Gev1zIt1Ek
After convening a group of experts to assess the data, the United Nations health agency said that “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant” as compared to other variants.
“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa,” the WHO said.
Why are scientists worried about the new variant?
Omicron appears to have a high number of mutations – about 30 – in the coronavirus’ spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people.
Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in the UK at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far suggests the new variant has mutations “consistent with enhanced transmissibility”, but said that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not known”.
“There are two approaches to what happens next: wait for more scientific evidence — or act now and row back later…I believe that it is better to ‘go hard, go early and go fast’ and apologise if mistaken,” said Sharon Peacock, prof of public health & microbiology at Cambridge
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described the variant as “the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen”.
He said it was concerning that although the variant was only being detected in low levels in parts of South Africa, “it looks like it’s spreading rapidly”.
US top infectious diseases doctor Anthony Fauci said US officials had arranged a call with their South African counterparts on Friday to find out more details and added there was no indication the variant had yet arrived in the US.
What’s known (and not known) about Omicron?
Scientists know that the new variant is genetically distinct from previous variants including the Beta and Delta variants but do not know if these genetic changes make it any more transmissible or dangerous.
So far, there is no indication the variant causes more severe disease.
It will likely take weeks to sort out if the new variant is more infectious and if vaccines are still effective against it.
Even though some of the genetic changes in the new variant appear worrying, it’s still unclear if they will pose a public health threat.
Some previous variants, like the Beta variant, initially alarmed scientists but didn’t end up spreading very far.
“We don’t know if this new variant could get a toehold in regions where Delta is,” Dr Peacock of the University of Cambridge said.
“The jury is out on how well this variant will do where there are other variants circulating.”
To date, Delta is by far the most predominant form of COVID-19, accounting for more than 99 per cent of sequences submitted to the world’s biggest public database.
How did Omicron arise?
The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying genetic changes, often just die out.
Scientists monitor COVID-19 sequences for mutations that could make the disease more transmissible or deadly but they cannot determine that simply by looking at the virus.
Finally, remember that Omicron like Alpha/Delta arose from an unvaccinated population. Had G7 leaders committed to vaccinating the African continent we would not be having this discussion. There’s not enough mRNA/adeno to vaccinate Global South, but lots of our protein vaccine
Dr Peacock said the variant “may have evolved in someone who was infected but could then not clear the virus, giving the virus the chance to genetically evolve”.
This would be a similar scenario to how experts think the Alpha variant – which was first identified in England – also emerged, by mutating in an immune-compromised person.
Why are travel restrictions being reimposed?
As of noon on Friday, travellers arriving in the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will have to self-isolate for 10 days.
European Union countries, the United States and Canada also moved quickly on Friday to try to stop air travel from southern Africa.
Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, restricting travel from the region is “prudent” and would buy authorities more time, said Neil Ferguson, an infectious diseases expert at Imperial College London.
We need to learn more, fast. To end on a hopeful note, it’s mind-blowing how quickly we’ve got this far. Kudos to @Tuliodna et al for getting this out, and setting the global scientific community onto experiments to answer more of these questions. Let’s get to work.
Jeffrey Barrett, director of COVID-19 Genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, thought that the early detection of the new variant could mean restrictions taken now would have a bigger impact than when the Delta variant first emerged.
“With Delta, it took many, many weeks into India’s terrible wave before it became clear what was going on and Delta had already seeded itself in many places in the world and it was too late to do anything about it,” he said.
“We may be at an earlier point with this new variant so there may still be time to do something about it.”