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Ómicron: what is known about the new variant of the coronavirus

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(CNN) – A new and potentially more transmissible variant of coronavirus first identified in South Africa has prompted a new round of travel restrictions around the world and raised concerns about what could happen in the pandemic.

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced on Friday that it has designated the variant of the coronavirus, called omicron, as “of concern” and said multiple studies are underway as advisers continue to monitor the variant.

While scientists say there are reasons to be concerned about the variant, they emphasize that there are still many things we do not know, including whether the variant is actually more contagious, causes more serious disease, or what its effects may be on the efficacy of the vaccine..

“While this is concerning, as the WHO has indicated, I think we have to take a step back and wait for the science on it,” epidemiologist Dr. Abdul El-Sayed told CNN.

This is what we know about omicron.

New omicron variant: what do we know so far? 1:36

Where it has been identified

So far, the variant has been identified in the UK, Germany, Italy, South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, and Belgium. In addition, health authorities in the Czech Republic are investigating a suspected case of the Omicron variant in a traveler who recently arrived from Namibia.

A specimen of the first known case of the variant in South Africa was collected on November 9, the WHO said on Friday. Now, the number of cases appears to be increasing in almost every province in the country, the WHO said. Currently, South Africa has fully vaccinated less than 36% of its adult population and its rate of new vaccinations has declined in recent days, according to the country’s health department.

South African authorities also initially said there was a confirmed case in a traveler from South Africa to Hong Kong. On Friday, Hong Kong health authorities identified a second case of the variant among travelers living on the same floor of a designated quarantine hotel. Health authorities ordered at least 12 people in nearby rooms to undergo mandatory covid-19 testing and two weeks of quarantine at a government facility.

Also on Friday, the Belgian government said that a person who had recently traveled from Egypt and was not vaccinated tested positive for the variant, marking the first case in Europe.

The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said on Friday that, given the variant’s “immune escape potential and potentially greater transmissibility advantage compared to delta,” there is a “high to very high” risk that spread in Europe.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on NBC Saturday Morning that the omicron variant may already be in the United States, but has yet to be detected.

“I would not be surprised if it is, we have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that shows this degree of transmissibility and you have travel-related cases, they have already noticed it in other places, when you have a virus like this, it will almost invariably go everywhere, ”Fauci told NBC on Saturday.

What is the risk of the new variant of coronavirus called omicron? 1:29

Why is omicron different from the other variants?

While mutations – and new variants – of the virus are expected as it continues to spread, experts say there is more cause for concern with omicron.

“We’ve seen a lot of variants appear in the last five, six months, and most of them haven’t been very big. This looks different,” Jha said. “It’s acting differently, it seems like it’s much more contagious than even the delta variant.”

The delta variant caused an increase in COVID-19 cases in the US during the summer and drove the increase in cases in Europe. A document from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicated that the delta variant was as transmissible as chickenpox.

When experts looked at other variants, Jha said, it usually took several months for these to become dominant; in other words, the most common variant of the virus spread in one area.

“This has become dominant very quickly in South Africa in the regions where it has been found. In a matter of days to weeks rather than months,” Jha said. “Now the number of cases in South Africa is quite low, so it may be due to other reasons as well, not just because it is more transmissible. But the speed with which it has taken off is really different from anything we have seen before.”

WHO officials also said in their statement Friday that preliminary evidence suggests omicron also poses a higher risk of reinfection, compared to other worrisome variants.

Biden announces measures against new omicron variant 0:56

“It is the most mutated version of the virus that we have seen to date. This variant carries some changes that we have previously seen in other variants, but never all together in one virus. It also has novel mutations,” said Lawrence Young, virologist and professor of Molecular oncology at Warwick School of Medicine in the UK in a statement.

The variant has about 50 mutations in total.

Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Center for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, said in a statement that the number of mutations in the spike protein was “unprecedented.”

“The spike protein gene [es] the protein that is the target of most vaccines. Therefore, there is concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants, “said Ferguson.

For his part, Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI), said that this variant has “many more mutations than we expected.” And he said it is spreading rapidly, which is why they expect to see pressure on the health system in the coming weeks.

De Oliveira advised people to avoid over-propagation events.

Effective measures against any variant, according to doctor 1:30

How transmissible is the omicron variant?

It is not yet clear.

South African authorities expressed concern that the mutation could lead to immune evasion and increased transmissibility.

De Oliveira, Ferguson and other scientists said it was too early to know the full impact of the mutations on the efficacy of the vaccine.

De Oliveira emphasized that covid-19 vaccines remain the best tool against the virus, adding that laboratory studies still need to be conducted to test vaccine and antibody evasion.

More studies are also needed to understand the clinical severity of the variant compared to previous variants.

It’s also unclear where the new mutation came from.

While it was first identified in South Africa, it is possible that it came from elsewhere.

“It is important not to assume that the variant first emerged in South Africa,” said Sharon Peacock, Professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge.

Europe seeks to stop the new waves of covid-19 infections 2:18

Flight restrictions and ban

Concerned leaders across the country announced new travel restrictions this week in hopes of slowing the spread of the newly identified variant.

President Joe Biden said he will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other nations starting Monday as a precaution. Officials told CNN that the US travel restrictions will give the federal government some time to investigate the variant, but added that it was considered inevitable that the strain would eventually show up in the country.

These are the countries that have imposed travel restrictions due to the new variant of coronavirus

European Union states also agreed to introduce temporary restrictions on all travel to the EU from southern Africa for fear of the variance, the bloc said on Friday. The affected countries are Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, said EU Commission spokesman Eric Mamer.

Canada “will ban the entry of foreign nationals … who have traveled through southern Africa in the past 14 days,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said on Friday.

And Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced sweeping travel restrictions covering most of Africa, saying on Friday: “We are on the brink of a state of emergency.”

Asian countries such as Japan, Singapore and Thailand also announced new restrictions from southern Africa.

As for the Latin American countries, Brazil and Colombia announced restrictions. Ciro Nogueira, Chief Minister of the Civil House of the Presidency of the Republic of Brazil he said via Twitter that Brazil will close its air borders to six African countries, South Africa, Botswana, Swatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe, due to the new variant of the coronavirus. “The ordinance will be published tomorrow and should take effect from Monday,” he said.

And although Colombia does not have direct flights to or from Africa – all are through connections with Brazil or the United States – Colombian President Iván Duque extended the health emergency until February 28 at the national level, and announced that the People who have been in Africa in the last 15 days and present symptoms must inform the Colombian authorities and be in isolation.

New omicron variant: how much did the cases go up? 0:51

With input from David McKenzie, Ghazi Balkiz, Andrew Carey, Amir Tal, and Ivana Kottasová

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