This week, South African scientists have identified a new version of the coronavirus that they say is responsible for the recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. It is unclear where the new variant actually originated, but it was first discovered by scientists in South Africa and has now been seen on travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
Health Minister Joe Fahla said the option was associated with “exponential growth” in cases over the past few days, although experts are still trying to determine if the new option is indeed the cause.
With just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa’s daily new cases soared to 2,465 on Thursday. In an attempt to explain the sudden rise in the incidence, scientists examined samples of the virus during the outbreak and discovered a new variant.
In a statement released Friday, the World Health Organization called it “an option of concern,” naming it “Omicron,” after a letter of the Greek alphabet.
After convening a panel of experts to evaluate the data, the UN health agency said that “preliminary data indicate an increased risk of re-infection with this option” compared to other options.
“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces of South Africa,” the WHO said.
Why are scientists worried about this new option?
It appears to have a large number of mutations – around 30 – in the coronavirus spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads in humans.
Sharon Peacock, who oversaw COVID-19 genetic sequencing in the UK at the University of Cambridge, said the current evidence suggests the new variant has mutations “consistent with increased transmissibility,” but said “many of the mutations are not significant. still not known. “
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described the omicron as “the most severely mutated version of a virus we’ve seen,” including potentially disturbing changes never seen before in the same virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. chief medical officer for infectious diseases, said U.S. officials had agreed to call their South African counterparts later Friday for more information and said there was no indication that the variant had yet arrived in the U.S.
What is known and what is unknown about the variant?
Scientists know that omicron is genetically different from previous variants, including beta and delta variants, but they don’t know if these genetic changes make it even more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there is no indication that this variant causes more severe illness.
It will likely take weeks to figure out if omicron is more infectious and if vaccines are effective against it.
Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said it was “highly unlikely” that existing vaccines would fail, noting that they were effective against many other options.
While some of the genetic changes in the omicron are troubling, it is still unclear if they pose a public health threat. Some of the previous options, such as the beta, alarmed scientists at first, but ultimately did not gain widespread acceptance.
“We don’t know if this new option will be able to gain ground in the delta regions,” said Peacock of the University of Cambridge. “There is no opinion yet on how well this option will work where there are other options.” Delta is by far the most common form of COVID-19, accounting for over 99% of the sequences submitted to the world’s largest publicly available database.
How did this new variant come about?
The coronavirus mutates as it spreads, and many new variants, including those with alarming genetic changes, often simply die. Scientists are tracking the sequences of COVID-19 for mutations that could make the disease more transmissible or fatal, but they cannot determine this simply by looking at the virus.
Peacock said the variant “could have developed in someone who was infected but then failed to clear the virus, giving the virus a chance to develop genetically,” in a scenario similar to how experts believe the alpha variant was first discovered in England – also arose as a result of a mutation in a person with a weakened immune system.
Are travel restrictions imposed by some countries justified?
May be. From Friday afternoon, travelers arriving in the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will have to self-isolate for 10 days. European Union countries also took quick steps on Friday to ban air travel from southern Africa, and the US also said it would ban travel from South Africa and seven other African countries for non-US citizens from Monday.
Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, restricting travel from the region is “prudent” and will win the authorities more time, according to Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London.
Jeffrey Barrett, director of COVID-19 genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, believes that early detection of a new variant could mean that current restrictions will have a greater impact than when the delta variant first appeared.
“It took many, many weeks with the delta during the terrible wave in India before it became clear what was happening, and the delta had already settled in many places in the world, and it was already too late to do anything about it,” he said. “We may be at an earlier stage with this new option, so there may still be time to do something about it.”