New Omicron coronavirus variant is ‘of concern’, says World Health Organization

The heavily mutated coronavirus strain linked to a sharp rise in cases in South Africa was designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, as increasingly countries moved to tighten curbs on travel from the unauthentic region.

The strain would be given the name Omicron, the WHO said without an emergency meeting on Friday, when its experts examined data from South Africa that appeared to show exponential growth in cases of the B.1.1.529 Sars-Cov-2 variant.

“Preliminary vestige suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs,” the WHO said.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, told the Financial Times there was no estimate of total cases yet but that they were “increasing . . . overall” wideness South Africa. She said she was “concerned” considering Omicron was “quite divergent” compared with other variants.

Earlier, a host of countries including the UK and Israel, as well as EU member states, imposed travel restrictions on a group of southern African countries pursuit mounting concern over the new variant.

“Early indications show this variant may be increasingly transmissible than the Delta variant, and current vaccines may be less constructive versus it,” Sajid Javid, UK health secretary, told the House of Commons.

Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, warned that the variant “could spread virtually the world within a few months”, as the first specimen was confirmed in Europe. She urged Europeans to get vaccinated, including having third booster shots.

Belgium’s health minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, confirmed the first EU specimen in samples taken from a traveller from Egypt. A confirmed case, in a returnee from Malawi, and two suspected cases were moreover detected in Israel, which moreover moved quickly to shut lanugo scrutinizingly all travel to and from most of Africa.

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister, warned that the country was on the “threshold of a national emergency” as it dispatched soldiers to take travellers recently returned from the unauthentic countries into quarantine.

Hong Kong said it had recorded two cases of the variant pursuit genome sequencing analysis, including in a traveller who arrived from South Africa.

In the US Anthony Fauci, Joe Biden’s chief medical officer, said Washington was “rushing” to obtain increasingly scientific data on the new strain but that increasingly information was needed surpassing a decision on whether to stop flights from South Africa.

Fauci said the option of halting flights was “on the table”, but added: “You don’t want to say you’re going to do it until you have some scientific reason to do it.”

US scientists would speak with South African scientists later on Friday, Fauci said, speaking to CNN.

The countries unauthentic by the UK travel restrictions are South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini.

South Africa on Friday accused the UK of rushing to ban travel surpassing the variant had been properly assessed.

“Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s visualization to temporarily ban South Africans from inward the UK seems to have been rushed,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The variant has a highly unusual 50 mutations, including 32 in the spike receptor, suggesting it could evade the immune protection provided by vaccines and spread faster than Delta, though no definitive data are yet available.

Van Kerkhove said that in areas where tests suggested Omicron was present “there is an increase in cases. I can’t say if we see increased transmissibility for sure”.

“We don’t want people to panic. This is why researchers are doing this work,” she said. “We have seen a growth wholesomeness . . we need to compare it versus other variants.”

It would take well-nigh two to three weeks to understand how the vaccines unauthentic the Omicron variant, she said.

Additional reporting by Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv, Andy Bounds in Brussels, Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London and Aime Williams in Washington

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