The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday named the B.1.1.529 variant of the novel coronavirus ‘Omicron.’ The new strain was previously referred to as the ‘Nu’ variant by scientists and journalists.
Omicron has reached Europe, Asia and the Middle East, having spread rapidly across southern African nations over the past fortnight. Scientists are working overtime to find out what impact this variant will have on the trajectory of the Covid-19 pandemic, but there are some things we know already.
Where did it come from?
The first cases of B.1.1.529 were identified in Botswana from samples taken on November 11. It was three days later that South Africa recorded its first case of the variant.
Where has it spread?
The strain is understood to have spread rapidly across southern Africa, and according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, it already accounts for 90% of cases in Gauteng province – the Highveld state home to major cities Pretoria and Johannesburg.
Where is it going?
The variant has since been identified by genome sequencing in Israel and Hong Kong. Health authorities in Israel said they had recorded a case of B.1.1.529 on Friday in a traveler returning from Malawi; two others are being monitored. Hong Kong registered its first case of the strain on Thursday in a traveler who had arrived from South Africa. This individual infected another person in a quarantine hotel, where the transmission was blamed on a “selfish” valve-style face mask.
Belgium became the first European nation to identify the variant on Friday. It was found in a traveler who returned from Egypt on Monday.
Can it be stopped?
Hopefully. Britain responded promptly to the fast-spreading virus, banning flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini. The EU has said it will follow suit, while Israel has updated its ‘red list’ to prevent further cases from reaching the Levantine nation.
A number of EU nations, including Germany, have imposed flight bans or tough restrictions on people arriving from South Africa.
All arrivals will be required to quarantine for 14 days, even if they are fully vaccinated against Covid-19, German Health Minister Jens Spahn stated. The Dutch authorities have banned all flights from South Africa from midnight.
How dangerous is it?
Scientists around the globe have sounded alarm bells with their early prognoses. Dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, noted that the variant has an “incredibly high amount of spike mutations, [which] suggests this could be of real concern” in a post on a genome-sharing website.
It “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile,” the Imperial College scientist said in a series of tweets. Responding to a follower, Peacock said this mutation appears “worse” than others at first glance but noted that it could just be “an odd cluster that isn’t very transmissible.”
Omicron is known to have 32 mutations in the spike protein – the part of the virus which protrudes on the surface, appearing like spikes, and plays an important role in how the pathogen infects its host. Most vaccines are designed according to the spike-protein profile of the virus, thus mutations to this part of the virus can make it harder for the body to defeat the infection.
Speaking on Thursday, the WHO’s technical head on Covid-19, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, admitted that little is known about the variant, with fewer than 100 full genomic sequences available for review. However, the UK Health Security Agency has already called it “the worst variant we have seen so far.”
“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the WHO said in a statement released on Friday. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant.”
How did we get here?
Viruses mutate “often and at random,” noted Dr. Meera Chand, the Covid-19 incident director at the UK Health Security Agency. Chand told The Guardian that it is not unusual for small numbers of cases to arise featuring new sets of mutations.
What comes next?
While news of the variant may have caused a global panic, sending stock markets plunging, we still don’t know how transmissible this strain is or whether it will be able to evade vaccine-induced immunity. Van Kerkhove provided assurance that “any variants showing evidence of spread are rapidly assessed.” However, it could take a number of weeks to gain a real insight into the impact of the new strain, she added.
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