26th November, 2021
The World Health Organisation has named B.1.1.529, the highly infectious strain of COVID-19 that emerged in South Africa as OMICRON.
WHO classified Omicron, a Greek letter word, a ‘variant of concern’.
The WHO warned that preliminary evidence suggests the variant has an increased risk of reinfection and may spread more rapidly than other strains.
The WHO said that the variant ‘has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning’.
Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel have also identified the variant.
Belgium is the first European country to report the variant.
“It’s a suspicious variant,” Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said. “We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”
The WHO said it will take a few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant.
In the UK, although there have been no cases, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there is ‘huge international concern’ over the strain.
The UK Government on Thursday added South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia to the travel red list to limit its spread.
EU Travel ban
The 27-nation European Union also imposed a temporary ban on air travel from southern Africa, and stocks tumbled in Asia, Europe and the United States.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 index was down 2.3%, on pace for its worst day since February. The price of oil plunged nearly 12%.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. The member nations of the EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “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.”
She insisted on extreme caution, warning that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months.”
The variant has not been detected in the United States, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top infectious disease expert.
Showing how complicated the spread of a variant can be, the Belgian case involved a traveler who returned to Belgium from Egypt on Nov. 11 but did not became sick with mild symptoms until Monday, according to professor Marc Van Ranst, who works for the scientific group overseeing the Belgian government’s COVID-19 response.
Israel, one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it also detected its first case of the new variant in a traveler who returned from Malawi.
The traveler and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were looking into the travellers’ exact vaccination status.
South African passengers stranded
After a 10-hour overnight trip, passengers aboard KLM Flight 598 from Capetown, South Africa, to Amsterdam were held on the edge of the runway Friday morning at Schiphol airport for four hours pending special testing. Passengers aboard a flight from Johannesburg were also being isolated and tested.
“It’s ridiculous. If we didn’t catch the dreaded bugger before, we’re catching it now,” said passenger Francesca de’ Medici, a Rome-based art consultant who was on the flight.
Some experts said the variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.