More and more cases of the new Omicron (B.1.1.529) coronavirus strain are being detected worldwide. This strain mutated quite strongly - an unusual set of mutations is very different from other variants. It strain surprised scientists, as this means a big leap in evolution of the virus.
The new strain, according to preliminary data, is more infectious than the previous ones. But scientists have yet to learn about its symptoms, and most importantly, the effectiveness of vaccines against it.
In the meantime, countries are imposing a ban on the travel from South Africa, where the virus was found, and will make stricter restrictions before Christmas.
Where did it come from?
It is unclear where the new strain first appeared, but scientists from South Africa found Omicron in a sample collected on November 9 and notified the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 24. This mutation rate most likely came from one patient who was unable to defeat the virus.
Now the mutation has begun to be noticed in travelers arriving in several countries - from Australia to Israel and the Netherlands.
On Friday, WHO labeled it a "strain of concern," giving the name "Omicron" after a letter of the Greek alphabet. The organization urged to get vaccinated as soon as possible in order to avoid the appearance of new mutations.
Why is Omicron dangerous?
- WHO data indicate an increased risk of re-infection. People who have contracted Covid-19 and recovered may become infected with the Omicron strain again.
- This variant has a large number of mutations - about 30 - in the spike protein of the coronavirus, which could affect how easily it spreads. So, the new variant has mutations "corresponding to increased transmissibility," said Sharon Peacock, who led the genetic sequencing of Covid-19 at the University of Cambridge.
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described Omicron as "the most mutated version of a virus we've seen."
- Omicron is genetically different from previous variants, including Beta and Delta. So far, there is no indication that this variant causes more severe illness.
“It will take weeks to figure out if vaccines are effective against it. Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said it was "highly unlikely" that current vaccines will not work — they are effective against a host of other options.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Pfizer and BionTech must adapt their vaccine to the new strain within 100 days if it is resistant to old vaccines.
“It's too early to talk about Omicron's symptoms. The first data from South Africa indicate that the cases there are "not particularly serious" and without loss of smell and taste, but people experience severe fatigue and heart palpitations.
- According to Dr. Angelica Coetzee, head of the South African Medical Association, so far, cases of this variant have appeared mainly in young people.
- WHO is working with scientists around the world to better understand the key aspects of the Omicron option and its impact on key instruments.
The world will be intimidated by restrictions
All 27 EU member states have temporarily restricted entry from seven southern African countries: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa.
In Switzerland and France, the first possible cases of infection with the Omicron strain were discovered in returnees from South Africa. In the Netherlands, the infection was confirmed in 13 travelers from South Africa. All infected were isolated in a quarantine hotel.
The new mutation was found in 9 people in the UK. In addition, an entire Cardiff rugby team has been stuck in South Africa after two cases of Covid-19 were confirmed on their team, one of which is believed to be an Omicron variant.
The government will re-introduce restrictions in the coming days: everyone arriving in England from abroad will have to take a PCR test, wearing masks in public transport and shops will become mandatory, and they intend to accelerate the revaccination campaign. The country has also suspended transport links to countries in South Africa, foreigners from this region are prohibited from entering, and citizens of Britain and Ireland must remain in a 10-day quarantine at the hotel.
The United States and Canada have banned foreigners from South Africa from entering. In Ottawa, 2 cases of infection with the new Omicron strain have been identified, both of which have been reported in recent migrants from Nigeria.
Japan has been closing its borders to foreign visitors since midnight Tuesday (tourists, business travelers and international students). India has introduced enhanced screening for arrivals from South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.
Israel has now closed its borders to most foreigners and imposed restrictions. The country has already confirmed 1 case of infection with the Omicron strain in a citizen of the country who returned from Malawi. Another 7 patients are awaiting test results. Those arriving in Israel will observe a three-day quarantine (unvaccinated will stay for 7 days) in a "coronavirus" hotel, and do tests at the airport. Many African countries have been put on the red list by Israel.
Australia suspends the opening of borders until December 15 due to the appearance of Omicron.
The South African authorities called the restrictions unjustified and are demanding that the bans be lifted.
"The only thing that this ban will result in is the further destruction of the economy in the countries it touched," said South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
In South Africa, they said that the country should be praised for the rapid detection of a new strain.
WHO also condemned South African travel bans. Instead of border restrictions, WHO urged states to follow the WHO international health regulations, which are recognized by 190 countries around the world.
"Travel restrictions may play a small role in reducing the spread of Covid-19, but they will have a devastating impact on human lives," Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, said Sunday.
While much is still unknown about Omicron, experts agree that it is a worrying phenomenon during the Covid-19 pandemic. But, as with Delta, the key to limiting the spread depends on human behavior and willingness to participate in proven public health interventions.