New Covid Variant Identified In Africa, Dubbed “Omicron,” Classified As “Variant Of Concern” By WHO; Markets Plunge; U.S. Restricts Travel From Region – Updated

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UPDATED: The U.S. restricted travel from eight African countries on Friday amid growing concern about a new variant of Covid-19, suspected of being more transmissible. The countries are South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mazambique and Malawi, according to the Washington Post. The new variant was first identified in South Africa.

A World Health Organization advisory committee today classified the new, heavily-mutated strain of Covid as a “variant of concern.” The organization has now classified five variants of concern: the original Alpha strain of the virus; the Delta Variant; Gamma, first identified in Brazil; and Beta, which also emerged in South Africa.

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WHO has given the new variant its own Greek name. Previously known as B.1.1.529, it has now been dubbed “Omicron.”

Watch the announcement below.

Yesterday, Omicron had been detected in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana. Today, Israel announced one confirmed case and two more possible cases. The confirmed case was discovered in a person arriving from Malawi. Belgium also announced it had identified the first case in Europe. Reuters reported that the case was a young woman who “developed symptoms 11 days after returning from a trip to Egypt via Turkey.”

The first known incident of Omicron was collected in South Africa on November 9 and formally identified Tuesday.

The news of the concerning strain sent stock markets plunging, with the Dow down 900 points on Friday.

The New York Times says the growing list of countries that have restricted travel from South Africa includes Bahrain, Belgium, Britain, Croatia, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore. The AP reported that all of Africa is included in Canada’s travel ban.

More from the WHO Report:

In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021.

This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant. Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation. Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.

PREVIOUSLY on Thursday: The U.K. added six African countries to its travel quarantine list on Thursday after a new, potentially more-transmissible variant of Covid-19 was identified there. The BBC said the countries are South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.

Twenty-two positive cases of the variant, which is being called B.1.1.529, have been recorded in South Africa, according to multiple reports. Some 59 cases have been detected worldwide, and only in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana. But some experts are concerned.

“This variant did surprise us,” Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform told the New York Times. “It has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta [variant].”

The World Health Organization has called a special meeting for Friday to the discuss the new variant and what it might mean for Covid treatment and vaccines.

“We don’t know very much about this yet,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid, said in a livestreamed Q&A on social media. “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.”

The UK Health Security Agency also has its eye on B.1.1.529:

The new variant has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone, which raises fears of increased transmissibility, according to a South African researcher cited by the Times. The new variant has 10 mutations alone on the ACE2 receptor, which helps the virus to enter cells. That’s five times more mutations on that structure than the Delta variant exhibits, according to the researcher.

In Botswana, the health ministry confirmed four cases of B.1.1.529 were found fully vaccinated patients. The single case in Hong Kong was carried there by a traveler from South Africa, according to multiple reports.

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases said in a statement today that “detected cases and percent testing positive are both increasing quickly, particularly in Gauteng, North West and Limpopo [provinces]. Seventy-one percent of new cases today are from Gauteng, which accounts for about 25% of the country’s population, said the statement. In Gauteng case rates are rising rapidly, and test positivity is 31.7%. For comparison, in California it’s under 2%.

“Although the data are limited, our experts are working overtime with all the established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be. Developments are occurring at a rapid pace and the public has our assurance that we will keep them up to date,” said Professor Adrian Puren, acting executive director of NICD.

Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.

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