LONDON – Scientists in South Africa have identified a new variant of the coronavirus behind the recent increase in COVID-19 infections in the country’s most populous province, Gauteng.
It is unclear where the new variant first emerged, but scientists in South Africa alerted the World Health Organization in recent days, and it Now seen in Travelers Arrived in many countries, from Australia to Israel to the Netherlands.
On Friday, the WHO designated it as a “type of concern”, naming it “Omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet.
What do we know about Omicron?
Health Minister Joe Fahla said the version was linked to an “exponential increase” of cases over the past few days.
From just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to more than 3,200 on Saturday, most of them in Gauteng.
To explain the sudden increase in cases, scientists studied virus samples and discovered the new variant. Now, 90% of the new cases in Gauteng are due to According to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform.
Why are scientists concerned about this new version?
After convening a group of experts to assess the data, the WHO said that “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of re-infection with this variant,” compared to other variants.
This means that people who contracted and recovered COVID-19 may be subject to catching it again.
The variant appears to have a higher number of mutations – about 30 – in the spike protein of the coronavirus, which can affect how easily it spreads among people.
Sharon Peacock, who leads the genetic sequencing of COVID-19 at the University of Cambridge in the UK, said the data so far suggests that the mutation in the new variant is “consistent with increased transmissibility”, but added that “the importance of multiple mutations is “still not known.”
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described Omicron as “the most heavily mutated version of the virus we’ve ever seen,” potentially containing worrying changes that had never before been observed in a single virus.
What is known about the variant and what is not?
Scientists know that Omicron is genetically distinct from previous variants, including beta and delta variants, but do not know whether these genetic changes make it more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there is no indication that the variant causes more severe disease.
It may take several weeks to find out whether Omicron is more contagious and whether vaccines against it are still effective.
Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said it was “extremely unlikely” that current vaccines would not work, given that they are effective against many other types.
Even though some genetic changes in omicrons appear to be worrisome, it is still unclear whether they would pose a public health threat. Some previous versions, such as the beta version, initially worried scientists, but did not spread very far.
“We don’t know if this new version can gain a foothold in areas where there is a delta,” said Peacock from the University of Cambridge. “The jury is out on how well this version will do where other variants are airing.”
To date, Delta is by far the most dominant form of COVID-19, accounting for more than 99% of the sequences deposited in the world’s largest public database.
How did this new version arise?
The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new forms, including those with worrying genetic changes, often die. Scientists monitor COVID-19 sequences for mutations that can make the disease more transmissible or lethal, but they can’t determine that just by looking at the virus.
Peacock said the variant “could have developed in someone who was infected, but then could not clear the virus, giving the virus a chance to evolve genetically,” in a scenario as experts think about the alpha variant. I think – which was first identified in England – also emerged by mutating in an immune-compromised individual.
Are the travel restrictions being imposed by some countries justified?
Israel is banning foreigners from entering the country and Morocco has halted all incoming international air travel.
Several other countries are restricting flights from southern Africa.
Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease specialist at Imperial College London, said given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, it is “prudent” to restrict travel from the region and give authorities more time. Will give
But the WHO noted that such restrictions are often limited in their effect and urged countries to keep borders open.
Jeffrey Barrett, director of COVID-19 genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, thought that early detection of the new variant could mean that the restrictions imposed now would have a bigger impact than when the delta variant first emerged.
“With Delta, it took many, many weeks before it was clear what was going on, the terrible wave in India and Delta had seeded itself in many places in the world and it was too late to do anything about it. It was done,” he said. “We may be at an earlier point with this new version, so there may still be time to do something about it.”
South Africa’s government said the country was being treated unfairly because it has advanced genomic sequencing and can detect variants early and asked other countries to reconsider travel restrictions.
Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, commended South Africa and Botswana for quickly informing the world about the new version.
“The Omicron variant has now been detected in many regions of the world, which enforce travel restrictions that make Africa an attack on global solidarity,” Moeti said. “COVID-19 continues to exploit our divisions. We will be better than the virus only if we work together to find a solution.”