Omicron the newly discovered strain of Covid-19 was identified in Southern Africa on Friday as a B.1.1.529 strain of Covid-19 and was declared a variation of concern.
The classification places Omicron, together with the internationally dominant Delta and its weaker rivals Alpha, Beta, and Gamma, in the most troublesome category of Covid-19 variations.
On Friday, nations scrambled to halt flights to slow the spread of Omicron, while stock markets and oil prices plummeted due to fears about the variation, potentially wreaking havoc on the global economy.
“Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology… the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern (VOC), named Omicron,” the UN health agency said in a statement.
According to the WHO, completing Omicron research to evaluate if there are any changes in transmissibility, severity, or implications for Covid vaccinations, testing, and treatments could take several weeks.
The WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution changed its classification during a hastily convened virtual conference.
What You Should Know:
South Africa was the first country to report the variant to the WHO on Wednesday.
A specimen taken on November 9 was the first known verified Omicron infection. Infections in South Africa have risen sharply in recent weeks, coinciding with the discovery.
“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the WHO said, pointing to worrying characteristics. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs”.
According to the report, the number of Omicron cases appeared to be rising in practically all of South Africa’s provinces.
“Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR tests continue to detect this variant,” the WHO said of testing for the virus.
– Names In The Greek Alphabet –
All viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19 sickness, mutate over time.
The appearance of variants that posed an increased risk to global public health in late 2020 caused the WHO to classify them as variants of interest and more concerning variants of concern, to inform the pandemic response.
To avoid stigmatizing the countries that originally discovered the mutations, the UN health agency opted to name them after letters of the Greek alphabet.
On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged governments to step up surveillance and virus sequencing efforts to better understand circulating variations.
The WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, urged people to take precautions to avoid contracting the virus.
“We understand that people are concerned,” she said. What’s important as an individual is to lower your exposure. These proven public health measures, have never been more important,” she said, citing distancing, mask-wearing, avoiding crowded spaces, good ventilation, “and when it’s your turn, get vaccinated”.
– Travel Issues –
Omicron has been identified in Israel in people from Malawi, Botswana, Belgium, and Hong Kong, in addition to South Africa.
Despite governments scrambling to block flights, the WHO had previously advised against implementing travel restrictions as a result of Omicron. In light of the mutation, the organization said governments should take a risk-based and scientific approach to travel restrictions, but cautioned against limits.
“At this point, again, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters.
Aside from Delta, Omicron, and the three other VOCs, there are two lower variations of interest at the moment, with another seven under surveillance.
Delta, which is more transmissible than the original strain, has mostly displaced other varieties over the world.
Delta sequences made up 99.8% of the 845,000 sequences contributed to the GISAID global science effort using specimens obtained in the last 60 days.