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WHO Announces New Variant of Concern

The Omicron variant threatens to open a new chapter in the COVID-19 pandemic, but what exactly is it, and what sort of actions are governments taking worldwide to address the spread? While many questions remain unanswered as scientists test the limits of the latest variant, here’s your basic primer.

What Is It?

Omicron (officially B.1.1.529) is the seventh “variant of interest” to emerge in the current coronavirus pandemic, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). The Omicron variant includes several key mutations, especially in the coronavirus spike protein that allows the virus to latch onto cells.

The WHO labeled Omicron a “variant of concern” on 27 November. The last variant of concern was Delta.

Why “Omicron?”

Variants that reach a certain threshold of concern are given a Greek letter to identify them. The first variant of note was designated “Alpha,” and the variant that first emerged in India—officially known as B.1.617.2—is known as Delta, the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet. Omicron is the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet (the WHO skipped some letters that could be confusing, such as “Nu,” which is easily mixed with the word “new”).

Where Did It Come From?

The Omicron variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on 24 November. “In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant” in the country, WHO noted. The first known confirmed infection from the variant was collected on 9 November.

Omicron accounts for most of the 2,300 new daily cases in Gauteng, South Africa, according to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Where Is It Now?

Despite hasty travel restrictions and governmental action, the Omicron variant has been found in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, South Africa, The Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, The Guardian reported.

Why Is It Concerning?

The number and type of mutations in the variant are causing some concern among infectious disease experts. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection, potential resistance to vaccination, and a higher risk of spread and growth, according to the WHO advisory.

Early findings into the variant’s effects are mixed, according to The New York Times. The variant may be more transmissible and better able to evade immune responses—whether triggered by vaccination or prior infection—than previous versions of the virus, but it might not produce as serious an illness as other variants or the original virus.

As noted by Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke: “It’s a suspicious variant. We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”

On a positive note, however, scientists are sprinting after answers. Within a mere 36 hours from the first signs of trouble in South Africa last week, researchers analyzed samples from 100 patients, collated data, and alerted the public. Within an hour of the first alarm, the Times reported, South African scientists started testing COVID-19 vaccines against the new variant. While results will be unknown for at least two weeks, this marks the fastest response to any variant so far.

What Are Countries Doing in Response?

Many governments imposed swift travel restrictions on inbound air travel from southern African nations.

Starting 28 November, passengers arriving in England from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa, or Zimbabwe are required to book and pay for a government-approved hotel quarantine for 10 days. The UK is also offering booster vaccines to all adults—and a fourth booster to people with severe immunodeficiencies—in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, CNN reported.

The United States announced last week that it would ban travel from South Africa and seven other African nations by non-U.S. citizens, and the European Union announced a similar ban, the Associated Press reported. Some countries are being even broader in their restrictions. Israel has banned all foreigners from entering the country for 14 days.

Officials from African nations, as well as many others such as Mexico, have warned that travel restrictions do little to stop the spread of virus mutations, but instead primarily hurt the economies of the affected regions.