The discovery of a new COVID-19 variant in South Africa this week sparked widespread concern and prompt action from a number of countries, including travel restrictions.
Here is 9 things you need to know about Omicron variant.
1. How was this variant found?
Scientists looked at virus samples and discovered the new variant after South African cases began to explode this week after holding at about 200 a day. Cases neared 2,500 on Thursday.
Though the variant’s existence was first reported by South Africa, it has also been found in Belgium, Botswana, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, and the United Kingdom, meaning the variant has already spread — though how far is unclear.
2. Omicron variant is highly contagious?
Early evidence suggests that the omicron variant is highly contagious, possibly more so than the delta variant. With more than 30 mutations on the spike protein — the part of the virus that binds to a human cell, infecting it — omicron could both be more transmissible and have more mechanisms to evade immunity already conferred by vaccines or prior infection.
So far, cases of the variant have appeared primarily in young people, leaving them exhausted and with body aches and soreness, according to Dr. Angelique Coetzee, head of the South African Medical Association. “We’re not talking about patients that might go straight to a hospital and be admitted,” she told the BBC.
3. Why is it named Omicron?
The World Health Organization gave it that designation after a letter in the Greek alphabet. The WHO also labeled it a variant of concern, the only one to get that designation since Delta emerged in India in late 2020.
4. Why is Omicron a cause for concern?
The seemingly high number of mutations — about 30 — in the coronavirus’ spike protein could mean it spreads easily. That is about double the number of mutations of the Delta variant, and could mean increased transmissibility. But the significance of the mutations “is still not known,” according to Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain.
5. Does the Omicron variant make you sicker?
There’s no indication that the variant will cause a more severe illness. WHO said there was “preliminary evidence” to suggest an increased risk of reinfection with Omicron for those who have already had the virus as compared to other variants.
No unusual symptoms have been reported with this variant, which can also led to asymptomatic cases, according to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
6. Will existing COVID-19 vaccines work against the variant?
Scientists say it’s too soon to tell and that answer will take a few weeks. One expert, Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, called it “extremely unlikely” that current vaccines wouldn’t work, noting they are effective against numerous other variants.
7. What’s being done to halt the spread of omicron?
Within days of the discovery of the variant, several countries began imposing restrictions on flights to and from South Africa and its neighbors.
- Israel closed its borders to “foreigners from all countries.”
- Australia, Britain, Japan, Thailand and others introduced travel bans or quarantine rules for air passengers arriving from the southern African region.
- The European Union and the United States have also announced restrictions.
- The United Kingdom said Saturday that it would require all international travelers to take a PCR test within two days of arrival and to quarantine until their test returns a negative result.
The U.S. restrictions will apply to travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. They do not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents. President Biden, in a statement, said the move is “a precautionary measure,” and urged Americans to get vaccinated and get booster shots.
“If you have not gotten vaccinated, or have not taken your children to get vaccinated, now is the time,” he said.
8. Could omicron evade treatments?
We don’t yet know how omicron might stand up to therapeutics developed to treat covid-19, including antivirals and monoclonal antibodies.
Bloom, whose scanning experiments could inform further research about omicron, said it is too soon to base clinical recommendations on available information. Because multiple mutations could combine in a way that dulls the impact of monoclonal antibody treatments, he said it’s difficult to assess which would be effective.
“I have low confidence in assessments at this point of which antibodies will still work,” Bloom said Saturday.
Companies that have developed cocktails, including Roche and AstraZeneca, say they are monitoring the variant.
Bloom said his experiments show initial indications that the Regeneron-Roche cocktail could “take a hit.”
“I think this shows the importance of work going on in academia and in industry to continue to find more antibodies against SARS-CoV-2 because it’s clear the reason people were doing this is we know that new variants were arising,” Bloom said. “It’s clear that’s going to continue to happen.”
9. How far might omicron have already spread?
Public health experts say there is a high probability that the new variant is already spreading in a number of countries beyond those where cases have been detected, noting that the first infection in Hong Kong involves a passenger who landed on Nov. 11.
“That is two weeks ago, which is a forever in the pace of a pandemic,” said Feigl-Ding, the Federation of American Scientists fellow.
There are several other troubling signs. One of the first cases identified in Belgium, for example, involves a young woman who did not travel to sub-Saharan Africa. Health officials there said she developed symptoms 11 days after traveling to Egypt via Turkey. She had not been vaccinated and had not developed signs of severe disease.
Feigl-Ding also expressed concern at the large number of people who tested positive for the virus on two flights from South Africa that arrived in the Netherlands — about 10 percent of all passengers: “That’s quite a statistic, even if it’s not all omicron.”
Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, told ABC News’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” that the variant’s arrival in the United States is essentially unavoidable.
“When you have a virus that has already gone to multiple countries, inevitably, it will be here. The question is: Will we be prepared for it?” Fauci said Sunday.
More detail: New Omicron cases detected as COVID variant spreads