Omicron: Mutations prompt new coronavirus variant concern from WHOon November 26, 2021 at 6:58 pm

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The World Health Organization says the variant has a large number of mutations, some are concerning.

A healthcare worker administers the Johnson and Johnson coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccination to a woman in Houghton, Johannesburg, South Africa, August 20, 2021.

Image source, Reuters

The World Health Organization (WHO) has declared a new coronavirus variant to be “of concern” and named it Omicron.

It said the variant had a large number of mutations, and early evidence suggested a possible increased risk of reinfection.

It was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on 24 November, and has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

Several countries banned travel from southern Africa on Thursday.

It is not uncommon for a virus to change, or mutate, over time. A variant becomes a variant of concern when that mutation might affect things like transmissibility, virulence or the effectiveness of vaccines.

In a statement on Friday the WHO said the number of cases of this variant, initially named B.1.1.529, appeared to be increasing in almost all of South Africa’s provinces. 

The WHO has said it will take a few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant, as scientists work to determine how transmissible it is.

It has warned against countries hastily imposing travel restrictions, saying they should look to a “risk-based and scientific approach”.

However, the UK, US, EU countries and Switzerland have temporarily halted flights from some southern African countries.

“It is now important that all of us in Europe act very swiftly, decisively and united,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said.

South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla told reporters that the flight bans were “unjustified”.

“The reaction of some of the countries, in terms of imposing travel bans, and such measures, are completely against the norms and standards as guided by the World Health Organization,” he said.

Stock markets across the world also fell sharply on Friday, reflecting the fears of investors over the potential economic impact.

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Analysis box by James Gallagher, health and science correspondent

A “variant of concern” is the World Health Organization’s top category of worrying Covid variants.

The decision adds weight to the mounting scientific worry about the potential of this new variant, but it doesn’t change any of the facts.

The variant has an astounding collection of mutations which are thought to increase its ability to spread and bypass some, but not all, of the protection from vaccines.

However, we still don’t have the clear real-world data.

We don’t know for sure that it spreads faster, makes vaccines or drugs less effective or whether it leads to more severe disease.

The WHO have also given it a name and ended days of speculation that we would end up in the slightly ridiculous position of calling the new variant the “Nu variant”.

There have even been arguments about the correct pronunciation of the Greek letter Nu (it’s technically a “Nee”).

Instead, you can guarantee we’ll be talking a lot about Omicron in the weeks to come.

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Variants explained
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