What you need to know about the new COVID-19 variant omicron

Global health authorities said they were monitoring a new COVID-19 variant that was first identified in Botswana, and the World Health Organization said Friday that the new strain, called omicron, is a variant of concern.

Formerly referred to as B.1.1.529, the WHO called on countries to intensify surveillance and surveillance, citing the high number of mutations and early indications that the virus was spreading in South Africa. The Global Health Agency said it is still unclear whether the variant is more contagious or causes more serious illness, or whether it affects vaccines. And that such investigations will take time.

Researchers have now confirmed 87 cases of the new variant – 77 in South Africa, six in Botswana, two in Hong Kong and one each in Israel and Belgium, although several hundred diagnoses are expected.

“We do not know much about this yet,” said WHO COVID-19 Technical Director Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, who spoke at a “Ask WHO” briefing on Thursday. But concern about this variant stems from its “large number of mutations,” Kerkhove said, which could “have an impact on how the virus behaves.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN on Friday that researchers from the US and South Africa will discuss the new variant on Friday, as early indications suggest it may be spreading in South Africa.

“Literally,” Fauci added, “it’s something we’re learning more and more about in real time.”

Concerns about this variant have already prompted the UK, EU and India to propose travel restrictions from South Africa. The World Health Organization, meanwhile, is calling for calm and saying it is too early to close the borders.

There are thousands of COVID-19 variants where new ones are constantly popping up. Usually, new varieties disappear quickly because they are exceeded by a more dominant strain.

The now dominant delta variant is so highly transferable that most of the new variants that have emerged in recent months have not been able to gain a foothold. In the United States, the delta variant covers an estimated 99.9% of all cases.

“There is obviously this tension between crying wolves and worsening worries about the variants, but also being caught flatfooted and not reacting fast enough,” says Dr. John Brownstein, Chief Innovation Officer at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News Contributor. “This is where we need to react cautiously without encouraging panic, because this can easily turn out to be a variant similar to others that have never really turned out to be global concerns.”

Researchers across the globe are constantly monitoring all emerging variants to see if they are spreading in a meaningful way, and global health authorities have said they are monitoring this new variant closely.

Pfizer and partner BioNTech said they will conduct experiments to see if the new variant may impair the effectiveness of the vaccine. Vaccine experts said that the current COVID-19 vaccines, which rely on genetic technology, could be easily updated to better control new variants – although so far this has not been necessary.

Eight variants are currently monitored by the WHO, which designates particularly worrying strains as variants of “interest” or “concern”. When they no longer pose a significant threat to public health, the variants are reclassified – so far during the pandemic, 13 have been removed from the WHO list.

But public health experts said the emergence of variants underscores the urgent need to vaccinate everyone on the planet.

“It gives us a lens into why we as epidemiologists have been so concerned about global vaccination,” Brownstein added. “It’s a recognition that with not enough people across the globe immunized, it creates more opportunities for variants to emerge, and that’s a very good example of that.”

ABC News’ Guy Davies, Josh Hoyos, Aicha Elhammar, Zoe Chevalier, Liezl Thom and Zoe Magee contributed to this report.

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