The World Well being Group on Friday labeled a brand new closely mutated pressure of Covid-19 a variant of concern.
“This variant has a lot of mutations, a few of that are regarding,” the WHO mentioned in a press release launched Friday. “Preliminary proof suggests an elevated danger of reinfection with this variant, as in comparison with different VOCs.”
The variant, first often known as B.1.1.529 and now named omicron, has been detected in small numbers in South Africa, WHO officers mentioned. Nonetheless, the variety of omicron instances “seems to be rising” in nearly all of South Africa’s provinces, the WHO reported on Friday. The omicron variant has since been discovered within the U.Okay., Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Hong Kong.
This is what we all know to date:
A number of mutations
South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira mentioned in a media briefing held by the South Africa Division of Well being on Thursday that the variant incorporates a “distinctive constellation” of greater than 30 mutations to the spike protein, the part of the virus that binds to cells. That is considerably greater than these of the delta variant.
Many of those mutations are linked to elevated antibody resistance, which can have an effect on how the virus behaves with regard to vaccines, remedies and transmissibility, well being officers have mentioned.
De Oliveira mentioned the variant incorporates round 50 mutations in complete. The receptor binding area, the a part of the virus that first makes contact with cells, has 10 mutations, far better than simply two for the delta Covid variant, which unfold quickly earlier this 12 months to change into the dominant pressure worldwide.
This degree of mutation means it is potential that it got here from a single affected person who couldn’t clear the virus, giving it the possibility to genetically evolve. The identical speculation was proposed for the alpha Covid variant.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, mentioned in a livestreamed Q&A on Thursday that scientists “do not know very a lot about this but” and that it will take just a few weeks to achieve a full image of how the variant reacts to current vaccines.
‘Most important variant’ so far
The U.K. Health Security Agency is investigating the variant, which Health Secretary Sajid Javid said is “potentially concerning.” No cases have yet been identified in the U.K., and Javid emphasized that although more data is needed at this early stage, the government had opted to take precautions.
“This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility,” said U.K. HSA Chief Executive Jenny Harries.
Israel has also barred travel to several southern African nations over the new variant, as well as Singapore and other nations. Israel has reported one case of the new variant in a traveler returning from Malawi.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with health experts Friday to discuss the country’s response, which could reportedly include declaring a state of emergency.
Belgium on Friday afternoon became the first European country to report a case of the B.1.1.529 variant.
However, the WHO on Friday cautioned countries against the hasty imposition of travel restrictions. Spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a U.N. briefing in Geneva that governments should take a “risk-based and scientific approach” and stressed that it will take researchers several weeks to understand the variant’s potential impact.
“It looks like this particular variant has a very concerning set of mutations especially in the spike protein, which is needed for its transmission properties as well as its protection against the vaccines, so based on the genetic information we are quite concerned about it,” Pasi Penttinen, public health emergency response manager at the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, told CNBC on Friday.
“We still have a lot more to learn about the situation in South Africa and all the efforts should now be not only in South Africa, but countries in the southern African region, to ensure that they get a full picture of this virus,” Penttinen said.
However, Francois Balloux, an epidemiologist and director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, told the BBC on Friday that the early discovery of the variant could render it easier to contain.
Balloux added that even if B.1.1.529 is more transmissible than previous variants, it would not “bring us to square one” in the effort to contain the virus. He suggested that it should be seen an irritating setback rather than a rebirth of the pandemic.
The first genomes of the new variant were uploaded to the international GISAID database Nov. 22, but genomes have now been uploaded from South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel, with the extent of the spread not yet known.
Cases have been concentrated so far in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populated region and home to almost 16 million people, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said during Thursday’s briefing.
The two cases in Hong Kong were identified in a quarantine hotel, with one person who traveled from South Africa suspected to have passed the virus on to a person in a neighboring room.
The new development comes as cases of Covid-19, mostly the older delta variant, surge around the world heading into the winter months. Multiple countries in Europe, in particular, have seen record spikes, and have implemented strict containment measures.
William Schaffner, professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University, told CNBC on Friday that suggestions that the variant could be more transmissible than delta, and that it could evade vaccine protections, meant it is “a matter of some serious concern.”
“The delta variant is already extraordinarily transmissible. It is really difficult to think of another virus that is more transmissible,” Schaffner told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”
“If we have another Covid strain that can spread even more readily than delta, that would pose a challenge to all of us around the world, because when delta arrived this summer, it changed the game.”
One positive so far, however, is that the variant has not yet been associated with more severe cases of Covid-19, Schaffner noted.