WHO says omicron strain causes concern

A nurse prepares a Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for children for distribution in Montreal, Quebec on November 24, 2021.

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The World Health Organization on Friday assigned the Greek letter omicron to a newly identified variant of Covid in South Africa.

The UN Health Agency has recognized the strain, initially designated lineage B.1.1.529, as an option of concern.

Health experts are deeply concerned about the possibility of transmission of the omicron variant, given that it has an unusual combination of mutations and a profile that differs from other variants of concern.

“Omicron, B.1.1.529, has been named as a worrying option because it has some dangerous properties,” WHO Covid-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove said in a video posted on Twitter. “This variant has a large number of mutations, and some of these mutations have some troubling characteristics.”

Experts fear that the sharp increase in the number of Covid cases in South Africa’s Gauteng province, where the highly mutated strain of the virus was first identified, could mean it has more opportunities to escape its previous immunity than other variants. The number of omicron cases is “on the rise” in nearly all provinces in South Africa, the WHO reports.

The organization only calls Covid strains of concern when they are more transmissible, more virulent, or more adept at evading public health measures, including vaccines and therapies. Data, presented at a briefing on Thursday hosted by the South African Department of Health, shows that some omicron mutations are associated with increased antibody resistance, which could reduce the protection afforded by vaccines.

Some mutations can also make the omicron more infectious, while others have not been reported so far, making it difficult for researchers to understand how they might affect the strain’s behavior, according to a briefing presentation.

“Preliminary data suggests an increased risk of re-infection with this variant compared to other volatile organic compounds,” the WHO said in a statement released Friday.

The labeling of new worries, coupled with growing anxiety from health officials on Friday, sent global markets into a tailspin. Oil prices and travel and leisure stocks suffered heavy losses on the news.

WHO said it will take weeks to understand how this option might affect diagnostics, therapy and vaccines.

What do we know at the moment?

South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira said in a media briefing on Thursday that the omicron variant contains about 50 mutations, but more than 30 of them are from the spike protein, a region of a protein that interacts with human cells before entering cells.

What’s more, the receptor-binding domain – the part of the virus that first comes into contact with our cells – has 10 mutations, far more than just two for the delta-Covid variant, which spread rapidly earlier this year and became the dominant strain throughout the world.

This mutation rate means it most likely descended from a single patient who was unable to clear the virus, allowing it to develop genetically. The same hypothesis has been proposed for the Covid alpha variant.

“Much work is underway in South Africa and elsewhere to better characterize the option itself in terms of transmission, in terms of severity, and any impact on our countermeasures such as the use of diagnostic, therapeutic or vaccines,” Van Kerhovo said. “So far, little information is available, but research is ongoing.”

About 100 variants of omicron genomes have been identified in South Africa, mainly in the province of Gauteng. A variant has also been found in Israel, Botswana and Hong Kong.

Many of the mutations identified in the omicron variant are associated with increased resistance to antibodies, which can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and affect the behavior of the virus with respect to inoculation, treatment and transmission. health officials said.

Passengers are waiting at Frankfurt Airport.

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“There are two approaches to what happens next: wait for more scientific evidence, or act now and come back later if it wasn’t necessary,” said Sharon Peacock, professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge.

“I believe it is better to ‘act diligently, act early, and act quickly’ and apologize for a mistake than to take the academic view that we need to reach a critical point in the evidence before action is taken. Rapid proliferation in South Africa may “be triggered by superproliferation events or other factors. But there are enough warning signs to assume the worst rather than hope for the best – and take precautions,” Peacock said.

The European Union, United Kingdom, Israel, Singapore and the United States are among the countries that impose travel restrictions for countries in southern Africa.

WHO warned countries against rushing to impose travel restrictions, saying they should instead use a “scientific risk-based approach”.

The South African Foreign Office said Friday morning that the UK’s decision to take the precautionary measure “appears to be hasty as even WHO has yet to advise on the way forward.”

– Elliot Smith of CNBC contributed to this report.

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