LONDON (AP) – The discovery of a new coronavirus variant sent a chill through large parts of the world on Friday as some nations stopped flights, markets plummeted and scientists held emergency meetings to weigh the exact risks, which were largely unknown .
The United States has already joined the European Union and several other countries to impose restrictions on visitors from southern Africa, while scientists gather more information.
As news of the variant – called “omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet – comes quickly, Americans are shouting to get up to speed. Associated Press Medical Writer Maria Chang answered some key questions about the new strain:
What led the WHO to label it a “variant of concern”?
South African scientists identified a new version of the coronavirus this week that they say is behind a recent rise 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 in travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential increase” of cases in the last few days, though experts are still trying to determine if the new variant, called B.1.1.529, is actually responsible.
From just over 200 new confirmed cases a day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to 2,465 on Thursday. The researchers struggled to explain the sudden increase in cases and studied virus samples from the outbreak and discovered the new variant.
In a statement Friday, the World Health Organization identified it as a “variant of concern.”
After convening a group of experts to evaluate the data, the UN agency said “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of re-infection with this variant,” compared to other variants.
“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces of South Africa,” the WHO said.
Is it particularly contagious?
It appears to have a high number of mutations – about 30 – in coronavirus nail protein, which can affect how easily it spreads to humans.
Sharon Peacock, who has led the genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in the UK at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far suggest that the new variant has mutations “consistent with increased transmissibility”, but said that “the importance of Many of the mutations are still unknown. “
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described the variant as “the most mutated version of the virus we’ve seen.” He said it was worrying that although the variant was only detected at low levels in parts of South Africa, “it appears to be spreading rapidly.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ best doctor for infectious diseases, said U.S. officials had arranged a call with their South African colleagues later Friday to find out more details, saying there was no indication that the variant had yet arrived. to USA
What is known (and not known) about the variant?
Researchers know that the new variant is genetically distinct from previous variants, including beta and delta variants, but they do not know whether these genetic changes make it more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there is no evidence that the variant causes more serious illness.
It will probably take weeks to find out if the new variant is more contagious and if vaccines are still effective against it.
Although some of the genetic changes in the new variant seem worrying, it is still unclear whether they will pose a threat to public health. Some earlier variants, such as the beta variant, initially alerted scientists, but did not end up spreading very far.
“We do not know if this new variant can gain a foothold in regions where the delta is,” said Peacock of the University of Cambridge. “The jury is out on how well this variant will do, where there are other variants in circulation.” To date, delta is by far the most prevalent form of COVID-19, accounting for more than 99% of sequences submitted to the world’s largest public database.
How did the new variant originate?
The coronavirus mutates as it spreads, and many new varieties, including those with worrying genetic changes, often just die out. Researchers are monitoring COVID-19 sequences for mutations that can make the disease more contagious or fatal, but they can not determine it simply by looking at the virus.
Peacock said the variant “may have evolved in a person who was infected but then could not remove the virus, giving the virus the chance to genetically evolve,” in a scenario similar to how experts believe alpha- the variant – which was first identified in England – also arose, by mutating in an immunocompromised person.
Are travel restrictions seen in the US and elsewhere justified?
There is no immediate consensus.
As of Friday, the United States has joined the EU and several other countries to impose travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa. The White House said the United States would restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region from Monday. It did not provide details, other than to say that the restrictions will not apply to returning U.S. citizens or residents who will continue to be required to test negative before their trip.
Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant, which originates in southern Africa, was better understood. But a nervous world feared the worst nearly two years after COVID-19 surfaced, triggering a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people across the globe.
“We need to move as quickly and as early as possible,” British Health Minister Sajid Javid told lawmakers.
Suggest a correction