WHO names new COVID variant omicron, warns against travel measures

  • WHO declares B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern after expert meetings
  • Citing “Harmful Change in COVID-19 Epidemiology”
  • Warns countries against imposing travel restrictions

GENEVA, NOVEMBER 26 (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday classified the B.1.1.529 variant found in South Africa as a SARS-CoV-2 “concern variant”, saying it could spread faster than other forms .

Preliminary evidence suggests there is an increased risk of re-infection and there had been a “harmful change in the COVID-19 epidemiology,” it said in a statement after a closed-door meeting with independent experts who reviewed the data.

Infections in South Africa had risen sharply in recent weeks, coinciding with the detection of the variant now designated omicron, the WHO said.

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“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are worrying. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of re-infection with this variant compared to others (concern variants),” it said.

Omicron is the fifth variant to bear such a designation. Read more

“This variant has been detected at faster rates than previous increases in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” the WHO said.

Current PCR tests continue to detect the variant successfully, it said.

A street vendor looks at her mobile phone while sitting next to her goods following the announcement of a UK ban on flights from South Africa due to the detection of a new variant of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Soweto, South Africa, November 26, 2021. REUTERS / Siphiwe Sibeko

Earlier, the WHO warned countries against the rapid introduction of travel restrictions linked to the COVID-19 variant, saying they should take a “risk-based and scientific approach”.

Global authorities reacted with alarm to the new variant discovered in South Africa, with the EU and the UK among those tightening border controls, as scientists sought to find out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant. L1N2SH089

“At this time, there is a warning against implementing travel measures,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a UN briefing in Geneva. “The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures.”

It would take several weeks to determine the viability of the variant and the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutic agents against it, he said, noting that 100 sequences of the variant have been reported so far.

People should continue to wear masks whenever possible, avoid large gatherings, ventilate rooms and maintain hand hygiene, Lindmeier added.

Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergency director, praised South African public health institutions for intercepting the signal from the new variant.

But he warned that while some countries had systems in place to do this, the situation elsewhere was often unclear.

“So it’s really important that there is no knee-jerk reaction here. Especially in relation to South Africa,” he said. “Because we have seen in the past, the moment there is any mention of any kind of variation, then all borders close and limit travel.”

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Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Alexander Winning in Johannesburg; Editing Alison Williams, Kim Coghill, Alex Richardson, Giles Elgood and Cynthia Osterman

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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