November 26, 2021 – The World Health Organization on Friday classified a new variant of COVID-19 from South Africa as a “variant of concern,” meaning it could be more contagious, cause more serious diseases and reduce the effectiveness of vaccine treatments.
The WHO convened an independent group of experts on Friday to evaluate the new variant due to the rapid increase in COVID-19 infections in South Africa this week. Scientifically known as B.1.1.529, the variant was called Omicron.
“Omicron has some worrying properties. This variant has a large number of mutations and some of these mutations have some worrying properties, “said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical director on the coronavirus pandemic, in a video statement.
“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection in this variant compared to others” [variants of concern]“Said the WHO in a statement. “The number of cases of this variant seems to be increasing in almost all provinces of South Africa.”
In response, the White House announced new travel restrictions on flights from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Foreigners from these countries are prohibited from entering the United States.
“These new restrictions will come into effect on November 29,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. On our way, we will continue to be guided by the advice of science and my medical team. “
The US has not yet discovered any cases of the new variant, Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, told CNN.
“At the moment we are getting the material together with our South African colleagues in order to get into a situation in which it could actually be tested directly,” said Fauci. “So right now you’re talking about … a red flag, that this could be a problem – but we don’t know.”
Scientists in South Africa started tracking the variant this week after a spike in COVID-19 cases and reported the variant to WHO on Wednesday. The first known confirmed infection came from a sample taken on November 9, the WHO said.
Several laboratories have determined that a widely used test could be a reliable way to detect the new variant. The WHO Virus Development Advisory Group has launched “a series of studies” to evaluate Omicron and will release new results as needed, Van Kerkhove said on Friday.
Based on previous knowledge, the WHO advised countries to step up their surveillance and genome sequencing efforts in order to better understand the variant. WHO also asked countries to submit genomic sequences to public databases such as GISAID. On Friday, 66 sequences of variant B.1.1.529 were reported to GISAID, 58 of them in South Africa, six in Botswana and two in Hong Kong.
WHO also urged countries to conduct field studies and laboratory analysis of the severity of the variant, as well as immune responses, antibody neutralization, and the effectiveness of public health and social interventions.
“Individuals are reminded to take steps to reduce their risk of COVID-19, including best public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving indoor ventilation, avoiding crowded spaces and Vaccination. “Said the WHO.
Biden urged other nations to increase vaccine donations to poorer countries.
“The news about this new variant should make it clearer than ever why this pandemic won’t end until we have global vaccinations,” said Biden. “The United States has donated more vaccines to other countries than any other country combined. It is time for other countries to catch up with America’s speed and generosity. “
Israel imposed a travel ban on most of Africa after discovering its first case on someone who recently entered from Malawi. A growing list of countries that have stopped or restricted flights, including Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore, the New York Times reported.
“We are currently on the cusp of an emergency,” said Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in a statement.
“I ask everyone to be prepared and to work fully around the clock,” he said.