The World Health Organization listed Omicron or B. 1.1.529 as a Covid-19 variant “of concern” on Friday after scientists observed an increased rate of infections in areas of South Africa such as its economic hub, Johannesburg. The South African Variant has a significant number of mutations compared to previous Covid variants.
While there is little known about Omicron, scientists have been rapidly investigating the mutated strain to determine how serious it is. After learning of the South African Variant, countries around the world have begun imposing new travel restrictions toward South African countries such as Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini, and Zimbabwe.
Omicron: The Mutation
According to the W.H.O., Omicron “has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” though not enough research has been conducted to completely understand what those mutations entail. However, “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other” variants.
South African scientist and director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, Tulio de Oliveira, said that B. 1.1.529 has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” which may increase its ability to infiltrate and infect human cells. De Oliveira admitted that “this variant did surprise us — it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta.”
Professor de Oliveira suggested that Omicron had 10 mutations in its receptor-binding domain, which is the component of the virus that binds to human cells. In total, the variant could contain as many as 50 mutations, with more than 30 mutations to the spike protein. It was reported that Omicron’s high number of mutations is significantly higher than the Delta Variant, which previously spread across the globe and became the dominant strain of the Covid-19 virus.
Scientists are still trying to uncover all facets of Omicron, however, it was suggested that its high number of mutations could make it more transmissible and result in immune evasion. W.H.O. said Friday that “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs.”
The level of mutation Omicron has reached indicates that the South African Variant likely originated from a single patient who was unable to fight the infection, giving the variant enough time to genetically evolve.
What You Need to Know
Though many countries have put the “emergency brake” on travel between certain South African countries, there is still so much unknown regarding Omicron. It is still unclear how serious the variant is and whether it will entail additional symptoms compared to previous Covid-19 variants.
Sajid Javid, a member of Parliament for Bromsgrove & Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, said on Twitter that “@UKHSA is investigating [the] new variant” but indicated that “more data is needed but we’re taking precautions now.”
Robert Burioni, a leading virologist from Italy, claimed on Twitter that there is “NOTHING” substantively “known about the new variant,” and explained that people should not jump to conclusions before more research is conducted. There is currently no concrete evidence that Omicron is more contagious or lethal than previous strains of Covid-19, and it still isn’t known if the South African Variant diminishes the vaccine’s protective potential.
New Travel Restrictions
Though there is no proof that Omicron is more dangerous than other Covid variations, certain countries have taken extraordinary precautions to prevent additional infections. On Friday morning, the European Commission proposed putting the “emergency brake” on travel from many countries in the South African region.
Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, said in a statement that “all air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant. And travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”
As of Friday afternoon, the countries restricting travel from South Africa included Bahrain, Belgium, Britain, Croatia, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Singapore. It is important to note the quick action against Omicron and that governments have taken much longer to impose travel restrictions in response to mutated Covid-19 variations.
Canada also issued travel restrictions on travel from Southern Africa. Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said at a news conference Friday that Canada would be “banning the entry of foreign nationals…that have traveled through southern Africa in the last 14 days.” Duclos recommended that anyone who has traveled through southern Africa, Mozambique, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Eswatini receive a Covid-19 test, as well as quarantine until a negative result is presented.
President Biden also said he would restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries beginning Monday, according to CNN. Reports suggested that Dr. Anthony Fauci consulted with Biden on the decision. The restrictions will not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents. As with all international travelers, they must still test negative prior to travel.
A statement issued by the Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation asked countries such as the UK not to restrict travel before proper analysis of Omicron was conducted. “The Government of South Africa has noted the announcement by the United Kingdom (UK) to temporarily ban all flights from the Southern parts of Africa, including South Africa from entering the UK due to the detection of a new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529,” South Africa said in its statement.
“Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens,” the statement continued, “the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organisation is yet to advise on the next steps.”
Minister Naledi Pandor added to the statement, explaining that “our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries. South Africa will engage the UK Government with the view to persuade them to reconsider this decision.”