Thursday, January 27

What do we know about omicron, the new variant of COVID detected in South Africa

What is the new variant and why is it concerning?

Scientists have detected a new variant of COVID-19 called B.1.1.529 and are working to understand its possible implications. There are about 50 confirmed cases in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana. The World Health Organization has decided to identify the variant as “omicron”.

Which communities have implemented the COVID passport and what is it needed for?

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Variant B.1.1.529 presents an atypical and worrying combination of mutations that, according to scientists, could make the virus more contagious and help it evade the body’s immune response. Any new variant capable of eluding the protection of vaccines or spreading more rapidly than the delta variant, currently predominant, could seriously threaten the global exit from the pandemic.

The World Health Organization met this Friday to evaluate this new variant and announced that it is “a worrying variant” (in contrast to the variant “of interest”, an earlier degree of alert). He also decided on the official designation using the Greek alphabet, as he has done with the previous variants. The next available letter was “nu”, but the WHO decided to skip this letter and the next one (“xi”) and switched to “omicron”.

The European Union considers that omicron has a “high or very high” risk. The EU Center for Disease Prevention (ECDC) maintains in its report that “the omicron variant is the most divergent variant that has been detected in significant numbers during the pandemic so far, raising concerns that it may be associated with greater transmissibility, a significant reduction in the effectiveness of the vaccine and an increased risk of reinfections. ”

Where has it been detected?

The first indications in diagnostic laboratories suggest that the variant has increased rapidly in the South African province of Gauteng and could already be present in the other eight provinces of the country.

In its daily share of nationally confirmed cases, the South African National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) has reported 2,465 new COVID-19 infections, nearly double the previous day. The NICD has not attributed the rise in cases to the new variant, although some leading local scientists suspect that this is the cause.

South Africa has confirmed about 100 cases with variant B.1.1.529, but it has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong (in the Asian city, the carrier is a person from South Africa). Scientists believe that up to 90% of new Gauteng cases could be caused by variant B.1.1.529. It has also been detected at least one case of contagion with this variant in Israel.

How does it compare to other variants?

Scientists consulted describe omicron as the worst variant since the beginning of the pandemic. It has 32 mutations in the spike protein, which in turn is the part of the virus used by most vaccines to train the immune system against COVID-19. This number of mutations is approximately twice that associated with the delta variant. Mutations in this protein can affect the virus’s ability to infect cells and spread, but they also make it harder for immune cells to attack the pathogen. In fact, the WHO has recognized that this new variant may pose an increased risk of infection and has classified it as a “variant of concern”.

The delta variant was first detected in India in late 2020 and has since spread across the world, causing an increase in contagion and fatality rates. Other variants of the coronavirus are alpha (detected in Kent, UK), beta (first detected in South Africa) and gamma (detected in Brazil). Following the decline in cases in Japan, the possibility has been suggested that the variants could “mutate to death.”

What new restrictions have been imposed?

The European Union has decided to suspend flights to South Africa and other destinations in the region. In total, seven countries are affected by the new restrictions: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Several countries in Europe had already suspended all connections, including Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom.

Spain had also announced the suspension of flights with South Africa and Botswana, and the Government has assured that they are working on a resolution to demand “with imminent character” an antigen test or PCR for passengers from “high risk” countries. in addition to the vaccination certificate.

Israel had also announced a ban on its citizens from traveling to southern Africa, a restriction that affects the same six countries and Mozambique. It will also prohibit the entry of foreign travelers from that region.

How can it affect Christmas?

It’s too early to tell as scientists work to better understand the new variant. As it has recently been detected, scientists do not yet have proof of its transmissibility or of its ability to evade the protection of vaccines. With a month to go until Christmas, the fear is that new restrictions will be imposed if the variant is allowed to spread.

It could take several weeks before scientists have all the necessary information about the variant and about the severity of the threat it may pose to the world.

Is there something to do to protect yourself?

Yes. If you haven’t already, the advice is still to get vaccinated. In Spain, 79.4% of the population has the complete regimen and 80.9% have received at least one dose. But the administration of booster doses is slower.

The Minister of Health, Carolina Darias, has admitted this week that the percentages of those vaccinated with the extra dose are “low”, both in those over 70 years of age – of whom more than 50% have received the third injection – and people who received the single dose of Janssen, whose proportion is especially small: less than 15%.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDE) has recommended a third dose for the entire adult population, with special attention to people aged 40 and over, six months after the second injection.

Translation of Francisco de Zárate

This article has been modified to correct the name of the “omicron” variant according to the WHO designation, instead of the one expected by the Greek alphabetical order and used by scientists this Friday of “nu”