It appears to be spreading rapidly in parts of South Africa, and scientists fear that its unusually high number of mutations will make it no longer transmissible and lead to immune breakout.
The WHO Technical Advisory Group on the Evolution of the SARS-CoV-2 Virus (TAG-VE), an independent group of experts, met on Friday to discuss the variant, according to a statement from the WHO.
A number of studies are underway and WHO will notify member states and the public as needed, according to the WHO statement.
WHO has called on countries to step up surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand variants of the coronavirus.
“Initially it looked like cluster epidemics, but from yesterday the indication came from our scientists at the Genomic Surveillance Network that they were observing a new variant,” South Minister Joe Phaahla said Thursday. African Health, pointing out that it is not yet clear where the variant first appeared.
South African officials initially said there was a confirmed case in a traveler from South Africa to Hong Kong. Next, Hong Kong health officials on Friday identified a second case of variant B.1.1.529 among returning travelers on the same floor of a designated quarantine hotel.
Also on Friday, the Belgian government said that a person recently arrived from abroad and not vaccinated had tested positive for the new variant, marking the first case in Europe.
Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said the variant has “a lot more mutations than expected,” adding that it “is spreading very quickly and we expect to see pressure. in the health care system in the next few days and weeks. ”
Viruses, including the one that causes Covid-19, mutate regularly and most new mutations do not have a significant impact on the behavior of the virus and the disease they cause.
A number of countries including the United States have imposed new travel restrictions and markets in the United States, Asia and Europe have fallen sharply in the wake of the news.
Acting on the advice of US health officials, US President Joe Biden will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, told CNN administration officials.
This does not apply to US citizens and lawful permanent residents. As with all international travelers, they should always test negative before traveling.
What we know about the new variant
Lawrence Young, a virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School in the UK, said the Omicron variant was “of great concern”.
“This is the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen to date. This variant carries some changes that we’ve seen before in other variants, but never all together in a virus. It also features new mutations, ”Young said in a statement. .
The variant has a high number of mutations, around 50 in total. Importantly, South African genomics scientists said on Thursday that more than 30 mutations have been found in the spike protein – the structure the virus uses to get into the cells they attack.
Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Center for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, said in a statement that the number of mutations on the spike protein was “unprecedented”.
“The gene for the spike protein [is] the protein that is the target of most vaccines. So there is concern that this variant has greater potential to evade prior immunity than previous variants, ”Ferguson said.
Sharon Peacock, professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said while the total number of Covid-19 cases is relatively low in South Africa, there has been a rapid increase in the past seven days.
She said while 273 new infections had been recorded by November 16, the figure had risen to more than 1,200 cases by November 25, more than 80% of which were from Gauteng province.
“The epidemiological picture suggests that this variant may be more transmissible, and several mutations are compatible with increased transmissibility,” Peacock said in a comment shared by the UK Science Media Center.
She added that although the meaning of the mutations and their combination is unknown, some of those present in the latter variant have been associated in others with immune evasion.
What we don’t know
Peacock, de Oliveira, Ferguson and other scientists said it was too early to determine the full impact of mutations on vaccine effectiveness.
De Oliveira stressed that Covid-19 injections are still the best tool against the virus, adding that laboratory studies have yet to be carried out to test for the escape of vaccines and antibodies.
Further studies also need to be conducted to understand the clinical severity of the variant compared to previous variants.
It is also not known where the new mutation emerged from. Although it was first identified in South Africa, it may have come from elsewhere.
“It’s important not to assume that the variant first appeared in South Africa,” Peacock said.
Scientists praised South African health authorities for their rapid response to a Covid-19 outbreak in the country’s Gauteng province, which led to the discovery of the new variant.
When cases in the province began to increase at a higher rate than elsewhere, health experts focused on sequencing samples from those who tested positive, allowing them to quickly identify the variant B.1.1.529.
Peacock said the South African Department of Health and its scientists “must be applauded for their response, their science and for sounding the alarm to the world.”
She added that the development shows how important it is to have excellent sequencing abilities and to share your expertise with others.
The reaction to the news of the new variant discovered by South African health authorities has also been swift.
British officials on Thursday announced that six African countries would be added to England’s travel “red list” after the British Health Security Agency raised concerns over the variant.
UK Health Minister Sajid Javid said flights to the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe would be suspended from noon Friday and that the six countries would be added to the red list, ie UK residents and UK and Irish nationals. arriving home from these departure points must undergo a 10 day hotel quarantine at their own expense.
Speaking on Friday, Javid said it was “very likely” that the B.1.1.529 variant has spread beyond southern Africa. In a statement to the UK House of Commons on Friday, Javid expressed concern that it could “pose a substantial risk to public health”.
European Union states have agreed to introduce temporary restrictions on all travel to the EU from southern Africa regarding the new variant of Covid-19, the bloc announced on Friday.
Member states agreed “to quickly introduce restrictions on all travel into the EU from 7 countries in the Southern Africa region: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe” , said European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer.
Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Israel, Dubai and Jordan have also announced new restrictions for travelers from the region.
Canada “will prohibit the entry of foreign nationals (…) who have traveled to southern Africa in the last 14 days”, because of the new variant of the coronavirus, said Friday the Minister of Health Jean-Yves Duclos during ‘a press conference.
“Canadians and permanent residents and those with a right of entry to Canada will be tested upon arrival, [and] they will be quarantined until they get the result of a negative test, ”according to Duclos.
South Africa, like much of the region, has suffered three significant waves of Covid-19 since the start of the pandemic. While the number of new infections across the country is still relatively low and positivity levels are below 5%, public health officials have already predicted a fourth wave due to slow vaccination.
South Africa has fully vaccinated 35.37% of its adult population and has seen its rate of people getting vaccinated drop in recent days, according to data from the country’s health ministry.
CNN’s Jacqueline Howard, Kaitlan Collins, Duarte Mendonca, Niamh Kennedy, Mia Alberti, Andrew Carey, Amir Tal, Antonia Mortensen, Tim Lister, Nadine Schmidt, Virginia Langmaid and Melissa Alonso contributed reporting.