WHO designates new COVID pressure Omicron as ‘variant of concern’

The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated a new coronavirus pressure detected in South Africa as a “variant of concern”, prompting international locations world wide to impose travel restrictions amid fears over its potential unfold.

A WHO advisory panel on Friday stated early proof reveals the new B.1.1529 variant, which it dubbed Omicron after a letter within the Greek alphabet, poses an elevated threat of reinfection in contrast with different extremely transmissible strains.

Global authorities reacted with alarm to the emergence of Omicron, which was first present in South Africa and has since been detected in Belgium, Israel, Botswana and Hong Kong.

The European Union and the United Kingdom have imposed restrictions on travellers from a number of international locations in southern Africa as researchers search to seek out out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant, whereas the United States introduced that related curbs would start on Monday.

The WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead Maria Van Kerkhove stated on Friday that Omicron was designated as a “variant of concern” as a result of it has some “concerning properties”.

“It has a large number of mutations and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics,” Van Kerkhove stated in a video posted on Twitter. She added that a number of research are beneath manner in South Africa and different international locations to raised perceive the severity, transmissibility and traits of Omicron, nonetheless.

The WHO additionally stated it’s more likely to take weeks to find out how efficient present COVID-19 vaccines are towards the variant.

Helen Rees, chair of the WHO’s African Regional Immunization Technical Advisory Group, stated scientists nonetheless have no idea sufficient in regards to the new variant to start sounding the alarm – and cautioned towards leaping to any conclusions.

“The fact that we are able to identify changes quickly is good news. It’s good news for the world. But we must be careful that we don’t then jump [to] conclusion[s]. We need to understand much more about this,” Rees instructed Al Jazeera from Johannesburg.

Travel bans

Nevertheless, since Thursday a number of international locations have banned travel from a number of African nations, together with South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, resulting from considerations over the brand new variant.

South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla on Friday slammed worldwide reactions to Omicron as “unjustified”, telling reporters that international leaders have been “finding scapegoats to deal with what is a worldwide problem”.

Phaahla stated throughout a media briefing that South Africa was appearing with transparency and travel bans have been towards the norms and requirements of the WHO.

Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar on the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, stated travel bans weren’t an acceptable response. “First of all, we know that travel restrictions do very little to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Adalja instructed Al Jazeera.

“Number two, it penalises countries like South Africa for being open and sharing this data.”

Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson – whose authorities imposed travel restrictions on Thursday – and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke over the telephone on Friday afternoon, a Downing Street spokesperson stated.

The pair “discussed the challenges posed globally by the new COVID-19 variant, and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel”, the spokesperson stated, whereas Johnson additionally “commended South Africa’s rapid genomic sequencing and leadership in transparently sharing scientific data”.

Vaccine inequity

Oksana Pyzik, a educating fellow at University College London’s School of Pharmacy, stated the brand new variant “shouldn’t come as a surprise” amid warnings from the WHO that international vaccine inequity might result in the emergence of latest strains of the virus.

“The World Health Organization has been warning us repeatedly … since the beginning of the pandemic that if vaccine inequity continue[s] … that inevitably will lead towards a more fit virus, a potentially vaccine-resistant virus,” Pyzik instructed Al Jazeera from Geneva.

“So we look across the entire African continent, there’s less than 3.5 percent uptake of vaccines at the moment and that has been due to a supply issue,” she added.

Mosa Moshabela, a professor of public well being on the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, stated whereas scientists nonetheless have no idea precisely how Omicron behaves, the 2 foremost considerations are its transmissibility and its potential resistance to immunity from vaccines and former infections.

Moshabela stated one other appreciable fear for African nations is that the brand new variant might result in extreme sickness and put a pressure on healthcare programs.

South Africa has reported nearly three million coronavirus infections and greater than 89,000 deaths for the reason that begin of the pandemic [File: Reuters]

“In Africa, what we are most concerned about is the fact that a lot of our people are not vaccinated,” he instructed Al Jazeera. “And if a lot of people were vaccinated, we could be looking at a scenario where a majority will have mild disease when they get infected by the variant, and therefore really not put pressure on the hospital system.”

For his half, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus referred to as on the world to hurry up “efforts to deliver on vaccine equity ASAP and protect the most vulnerable everywhere” because of the “concerning” mutations of Omicron.

Tedros stated on Wednesday that he hoped a consensus may very well be reached at a World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial assembly subsequent week for an IP waiver for coronavirus vaccines, a measure that already has the help of greater than 100 international locations.

US President Joe Biden reiterated his administration’s dedication to the waivers on Friday, urging international locations set to take part in subsequent week’s WTO assembly to again the measure “so these vaccines can be manufactured globally” – particularly in gentle of Omicron’s emergence.

“I endorsed this position in April; this news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly,” Biden stated in a press release.