Omicron variant: What we know about the new variant; travel bans; WHO meeting

A new variant of the COVID-19 virus has scientists around the world concerned and the U.S. and a growing number of countries reinstituting travel bans.

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Early Friday, nearly a dozen countries had instituted a ban on travel to and from several African nations as the new variant, thought to have originated in South Africa, was being seen in cities around the world. By mid-afternoon, the U.S. joined the other nations and announced a travel ban to South Africa and seven other African nations, as well.

The new variant, named omicron by an advisory panel of the World Health Organization, was classified as a highly transmissible virus of concern by the WHO. However, researchers do not yet know if it spreads faster than the delta variant which was responsible for nearly all COVID-19 cases during the late spring and summer, if it will spread to countries more heavily vaccinated than Africa, or if it can evade current vaccines.

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“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, according to CNBC.

The new variant had been identified as B.1.1.529, but was given the Greek letter designation omicron following an emergency meeting by the WHO.

The announcement of the new variant comes as cases of the novel coronavirus are rising around the world.

The variant was first reported earlier this month in Botswana, according to Nature magazine. So far, scientists have not determined if the variant can somehow evade the immune response.

Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, told the Associated Press that the virus’ mutations seem, so far, to be “consistent with enhanced transmissibility,” but said that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not known.”

South Africa’s Department of Health on Thursday showed that B.1.1.529 made up around 75% of cases detected in Gauteng province on Nov. 22. The variant had emerged there only two weeks before.

The British government announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon London time on Friday. Canada, France, Japan, Germany, Italy, Singapore, the Czech Republic and Israel have announced similar restrictions.

Prof Francois Balloux, an epidemiologist and director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, told the BBC that the new variant “could be a setback”, but it will not bring the world back “to square one” in the fight against the disease first publicly reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019.

“It’s annoying, it’s problematic, but it’s not like a new pandemic,” he said, adding that “entire immunity” will not be lost overnight.

“It could be a setback, but it’s not a complete start again of the whole thing.”

“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, according to CNBC.

The White House on Friday afternoon issued a statement from President Joe Biden about the U.S. travel ban.

“This morning I was briefed by my chief medical advisor, Dr. Tony Fauci, and the members of our COVID response team, about the Omicron variant, which is spreading through Southern Africa. As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries. These new restrictions will take effect on November 29. As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises.”