World races to fight new threat Omicron, as WHO calls it variant of concern

While the variant is suspected to be more transmissible than its predecessor Delta, and evasive to vaccines, its ability to cause severe disease is yet to be assessed

The new variant has been detected in five countries so far. Representational Image

The new South African variant of SarsCov-2, suspected to be more contagious and perilous than the Delta variant, has disrupted the normalcy that was beginning to set in in a post-pandemic world.

While the variant has led to the crash of stock markets worldwide, several countries, which had opened up their economies, have quickly imposed fresh curbs on travel from affected regions, as a precautionary measure.

On Friday evening, the World Health Organisation (WHO) which had convened an emergency meeting to discuss the variant, B.1.1.529 named it Omicron while designating it as a ‘highly transmissible virus of concern’, the same category that includes the predominant Delta variant, which is still a scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States.

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The WHO panel drew from the Greek alphabet in naming the variant omicron, as it has done with earlier, major variants of the virus.

Cases of the variant were first reported by scientists in South Africa on Thursday, followed by Botswana and Hong Kong. Since then, the variant has been reported in Israel and Belgium too.

According to WHO, around 100 genomes sequences of the variant have been reported thus far. It said a chunk of the affected people were fully vaccinated and at least one in Israel had even received a booster shot of the COVID-19 vaccine.

According to scientific analysis, the variant spreads at a rate faster than its predecessors including Delta, which is suspected to have triggered the devastating second wave of the pandemic in India and now a fresh wave of infections in Europe. The fact that it has infected vaccinated individuals and those with a booster shot indicates its ability to evade vaccine, scientists have said.

However, the variant’s ability to cause severe disease, is yet to be assessed. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said.

“This variant has a number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs,” the WHO said in a statement.

“The number of cases this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces of South Africa…this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” the WHO said.

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In response to the variant’s discovery in southern Africa, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union in restricting travel for visitors from that region, where the variant brought on a fresh surge of infections.

The Indian Health Ministry on Friday instructed all states and Union territories to conduct rigorous screening and testing of travellers coming and transiting between the affected countries.

Even though medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied, a jittery world feared the worst after the tenacious virus triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe.

“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” British Health secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.

Speaking to reporters at a Thanksgiving gathering, US President Joe Biden said while announcing new travel restrictions, said “I’ve decided that were going to be cautious.”

Fears of more pandemic-induced economic turmoil caused stocks to tumble in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly dropped more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 index closed down 2.3 per cent, its worst day since February. The price of oil plunged about 13 per cent.

“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German health Minister Jens Spahn said.

Members of the 27-nation EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently. Britain, EU countries and some others introduced their travel restrictions on Friday, within hours of learning about the variant.

Asked why the U.S. was waiting until Monday, Biden said, “Because that was the recommendation coming from my medical team.” The White House said government agencies needed the time to work with airlines and put the travel limits into effect.

EU commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to be suspended until “we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.” She warned that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months.”

Also read: Centre issues alert on South African COVID variant, rigorous screening on

“It’s a suspicious variant,” said Frank Vandenbroucke, health minister in Belgium, which became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant.

“We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant. Omicron has yet to be detected in the United States,” said Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious disease expert. “Although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, we don’t know that for sure right now,” he told CNN.

(With inputs from agencies)