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A new COVID-19 strain, which originated in southern Africa, has been identified and classified by a special panel of the World Health Organization (WHO), which named it “omicron”.
The WHO panel flagged it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, placing it (at least for now) into the same category as the delta variant. Not much more is currently known about omicron, though South African researchers are still working to better understand the strain.
The WHO said that early evidence is suggesting omicron could carry an increased risk of reinfection, but there’s no immediate indication as to whether it actually causes a more severe illness.
South African experts have found that, as with previous COVID-19 variants, some infected people can be completely asymptomatic, displaying no outward signs that they’re even carrying the virus.
While the viral mutation seems worrisome, it’s currently unclear whether omicron could pose a significant new public health threat. In the past, there have been variants (e.g., the beta variant), that initially appeared concerning, but ultimately didn’t spread very far.
AP News reported that medical experts, including those at the WHO, are advising against any immediate overreaction to the discovery of this new strain. Since it’s still gathering preliminary information on omicron, the WHO has yet to recommend any next steps.
Nevertheless, after nearly two years living under the shadow of the pandemic, the news of a fresh “variant of concern” sparked panic among some scientists and officials, prompting certain nations to immediately set bans on air travel from affected areas of southern Africa.
“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.
The last significant variant of concern, the delta variant, was first identified in India at the end of 2020. It spread rapidly across different parts of the globe due to its enhanced transmissibility, causing fresh waves of infection throughout 2021 and becoming the predominant strain of the virus.
In light of the COVID-19 surge that mainland Europe has been battling lately, the bloc isn’t taking any chances. “The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn.
So, today, the 27-nation European Union (E.U.) placed a temporary ban on air travel from the southern parts of Africa. E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced that flights would, “be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”
von der Leyen took a stance of extreme caution, warning that, “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months.”
Actually, omicron has already arrived in the European Union. Belgium recently became the bloc’s first nation to announce that it had detected a case of the strain. It was imported by a traveler who returned to Belgium from Egypt on November 11 but didn’t begin displaying mild symptoms until 11 days later. “It’s a suspicious variant,” remarked Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke. “We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”
The United Kingdom (U.K.) also swiftly banned air travel from South Africa and five other African countries, effective at noon today, and said that individuals who had recently arrived from the affected countries would be asked to take a COVID-19 test.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s chief infectious disease expert, said that omicron has not yet been detected on U.S. soil. He told CNN that the variant “seems to be spreading at a reasonably rapid rate” abroad. And, although there’s speculation that omicron may be more transmissible and vaccine-resistant than previous strains, Fauci said “we don’t know that for sure right now.”
Fauci disclosed that U.S. public health officials are today speaking with their South African counterparts, saying, “We want to find out scientist to scientist exactly what is going on.”
Later on Friday, after the E.U., the U.K., Canada and a handful of other nations announced their travel bans, the U.S. moved to impose its own restrictions on travel from South Africa and seven other African countries in hopes of halting omicron’s spread before it gets out of hand. According to Bloomberg, President Joe Biden this afternoon announced bans on travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. American citizens and permanent residents won’t be subject to the policy but must still present a negative COVID-19 test to re-enter the U.S.
For more information, visit who.int.