LONDON (AP) – South African scientists have identified a new version of the coronavirus which they say is behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province .
It is not known where the new variant first appeared, but scientists in South Africa have alerted the World Health Organization in recent days, and it has now been seen in travelers arriving in several countries, from Australia to Israel via the Netherlands.
The WHO on Friday designated it as a “variant of concern”, naming it “omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT OMICRON?
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential increase” in cases in recent days.
From just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa has seen the number of daily new cases climb to more than 3,200 on Saturday, most in Gauteng.
Struggling to explain the sudden increase in cases, scientists studied virus samples and discovered the new variant. Today, up to 90% of new cases in Gauteng are the cause, according to Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Sequencing and Innovation Platform.
WHY ARE SCIENTISTS CONCERNED BY THIS NEW VARIANT?
After convening a panel 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 have contracted COVID-19 and have recovered could be prone to catch it again.
The variant appears to have a high number of mutations – around 30 – in the coronavirus spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to humans.
Sharon Peacock, who led the genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, said data so far suggests that the new variant has mutations “compatible with improved transmissibility”, but said that “the significance of most 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 seen,” including potentially worrying changes never seen before in the same virus.
WHAT IS KNOWN AND DON’T KNOW ABOUT THE VARIANT?
Scientists know that omicron is genetically distinct from previous variants, including beta and delta variants, but aren’t sure if these genetic changes make it more heritable or dangerous. So far, there is no indication that the variant causes more serious disease.
It will likely take weeks to determine if omicron is more infectious and if the vaccines are still working against it.
Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said it was “extremely unlikely” that current vaccines would not work, noting that they are effective against many other variants.
Even though some of the genetic modifications in omicron seem worrisome, it is still unclear whether they will pose a threat to public health. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially alarmed scientists, but ultimately didn’t spread very far.
“We don’t know if this new variant could gain a foothold in areas where the delta is located,” said Peacock of the University of Cambridge. “The jury is out on how this variant will work where other variants circulate.”
To date, the delta is by far the most predominant form of COVID-19, accounting for over 99% of the sequences submitted to the world’s largest public database.
HOW DID THIS NEW VARIANT BE BORN?
The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new variants, including those with disturbing genetic changes, often disappear. Scientists are monitoring COVID-19 sequences for mutations that could make the disease more transmissible or fatal, but they cannot determine this simply by examining the virus.
Peacock said the variant “may have evolved in an infected person but then failed to clear the virus, giving the virus the ability to evolve genetically,” in a scenario similar to how experts believe the alpha variant – which was first identified in England – also emerged, mutating in an immunocompromised person.
ARE THE TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS IMPOSED BY CERTAIN COUNTRIES JUSTIFIED?
Israel bans foreigners from entering the country and Morocco has stopped all inbound international air travel.
A number of other countries restrict flights from southern Africa.
Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, restricting travel from the region is ‘prudent’ and would save authorities more time, said Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College of London.
But the WHO noted that these 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, believed that early detection of the new variant could mean that restrictions taken now would have a greater impact than when the delta variant first appeared.
“With delta, it took many weeks before the terrible wave in India became clear and the delta had already taken hold in many places around the world and it was too late to do anything.” did he declare. “We may be at an earlier stage with this new variant, so there may still be time to do something about it. “
The South African government has said the country is being treated unfairly as it has advanced genomic sequencing and could detect the variant faster and has called on other countries to reconsider travel bans.
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