What we know and do not know about new COVID variant

Travelers wearing protective face masks arrive at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sunday. (Ariel Schalit, Associated Press)

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LONDON – South African scientists have identified a new version of the coronavirus 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 first appeared, but scientists in South Africa warned the World Health Organization in recent days, and it has now been seen in travelers arriving in several countries, from Australia to Israel to the Netherlands.

On Friday, the WHO designated it as a “variant of concern” and named it “omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet.

What do we know about omicron?

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential increase” in cases over the past few days.

From just over 200 new confirmed cases a day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to more than 3,200 on Saturday, most in Gauteng.

The researchers struggled to explain the sudden increase in cases, and studied virus samples and discovered the new variant. Now as many as 90% of the new cases in Gauteng are caused by it, according to Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform.

Why are scientists worried about this new variant?

After convening a group of experts to evaluate the data, the WHO said that “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of re-infection with this variant,” compared to other variants.

This means that people who have received COVID-19 and have recovered may be exposed to it again.

The variant appears to have a high number of mutations – about 30 – in the 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 omicron as “the most mutated version of the virus we’ve seen,” including potentially worrying changes that have never before been seen all in the same virus.

What is known and not known about the variant?

Researchers know that omicron 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 omicron is more contagious and if vaccines are still effective against it.

Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said it was “extremely unlikely” that current vaccines would not work, noting that they are effective against several other variants.

Although some of the genetic changes in omicron seem worrying, it is still unclear whether they will pose a threat to public health. Some earlier variants, such as the beta variant, first 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.

Students from Tshwane University of Technology return to their residence in Pretoria, South Africa, on Saturday.  The world is racing to include a new COVID-19 variant, which seems to be driving an increase in South Africa and is about to throw itself out there.
Students from Tshwane University of Technology return to their residence in Pretoria, South Africa, on Saturday. The world is racing to include a new COVID-19 variant, which seems to be driving an increase in South Africa and is about to throw itself out there. (Photo: Denis Farrell, Associated Press)

How did this 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 imposed by some countries justified?


Israel bans foreigners from entering the country, and Morocco has stopped all incoming international flights.

A number of other countries restrict flights in from southern Africa.

Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, it is “cautious” to restrict travel from the region and would buy the authorities more time, said Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London.

However, the WHO noted that such restrictions are often limited in their impact and called on countries to keep their borders open.

Jeffrey Barrett, director of COVID-19 Genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, believed that early detection of the new variant could mean that limitations taken would now have a greater impact than when the delta variant first appeared.

“With the delta, it took many, many weeks into India’s terrible wave before it became clear what was going on, and the delta had already sown itself in many parts of the world, and it was too late to do anything about it,” he said. . “We may be at an earlier stage with this new variant, so there may still be time to do something about it.”

The South African government said the country was being treated unfairly because it has advanced genomic sequencing and was able to detect the variant more quickly, and asked other countries to reconsider the travel ban.

Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, praised South Africa and Botswana for quickly informing the world about the new variant.

“With the omicron variant now being discovered in several regions of the world, the imposition of travel bans on Africa is attacking global solidarity,” Moeti said. “COVID-19 is constantly exploiting our divisions. We will only get the better out of the virus if we work together on solutions.”


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