The World Health Organization (WHO) named the new COVID-19 variant Omicron, and it prompted worldwide concerns as nations rushed to suspend travel from southern Africa. As a result, stock markets on both sides of the Atlantic suffered their most significant drops in more than a year. According to the WHO, Omicron may transmit more easily and quickly than other forms, and initial evidence suggests a bigger risk of reinfection.
Omicron is classified as the same category that includes the predominant delta variant, which is still a scourge leading to more cases of hospitalizations and death in Europe and several areas of the United States. Joe Biden, the President of the United States, said about the new variant that it seems to spread more rapidly. While announcing the new travel restrictions, Biden told reporters that he decided to go cautious about the new variant.
There have been a number of overview threads on the emerging variant designated as @PangoNetwork lineage B.1.1.529, @nextstrain clade 21K and @WHO Variant of Concern Omicron. I’m not going to attempt to be comprehensive here, but will highlight a few aspects of the data. 1/16
— Trevor Bedford (@trvrb) November 26, 2021
The actual risks of Omicron are not understood. However, preliminary evidence suggests it carries an enlarged risk of reinfection compared with other more contagious variants. It means that individuals who previously contracted coronavirus and recovered from it could catch the virus again. In addition, it could take some weeks to know if current COVID-19 vaccines are less effective against it.
The U.S. Announced to Restrict Travel from Southern African Countries
In response to the discovery of the Omicron in southern Africa, Russia, the United States, and Canada restricted travel for visitors from that region, where the new variant brought on the latest surge of infections. In addition, the White House said that the United States would restrict travel from South Africa and seven other nations in the region starting Monday. Later Friday, the president issued a declaration making the travel ban official, with expectations for American citizens and permanent residents for several other groups, including close family members such as spouses.
Travelers from Zimbabwe, Eswatini, South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, and Botswana will not be able to enter the United Kingdom unless they are the U.K. or Irish nationals or residents of Britain. Switzerland and E.U. nations also temporarily blocked flights to and from some southern African countries. It is usually not typical for a virus to mutate, or change, with time. However, any virus variant becomes a variant of concern when that mutation might affect things such as virulence, transmissibility, or the effectiveness of vaccines.
News of Surging Omicron Variant – but not Doomsday
On Friday, the WHO said that the number of cases of the new variant initially named B.1.1.529 seemed to increase in almost all South Africa provinces. Furthermore, the United Nations public health body stated that Omicron has many mutations, some of which are too much concern. According to the health body, the first confirmed infection of the new variant was from a sample collected on 9th November.
However, the WHO said that it would take some weeks to understand the impact of Omicron, as scientists worked to find out how contagious it was. Additionally, a top U.K. health official cautioned that current vaccines would almost be less effective against the new coronavirus variant. James Naismith, a structural biologist professor at the University of Oxford, expressed that it is bad news, but it is not doomsday. He also said that Omicron transmissibility is not only as simple as this amino acid and is determined by how mutations work together.
A team member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group, Dr. Mike Tildesley, told BBC News on Friday that only around twenty-four percent of the population of South Africa received full vaccination doses, which could provoke an instant spread of new cases there. Likewise, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States Infectious disease expert, said that while the reports on the new COVID variant turned on red lights and it was impossible that current vaccines might still work to prevent hospitalization and severe illness. In addition, Fauci told CNN News that until proper testing of the new variant, health officials do not know whether or not it bypasses antibodies that protect the human body against the virus.
Which are other countries which also announced travel restrictions to and from southern Africa?
The World Health Organization warned against nations rapidly imposing travel restrictions and said they should look to a scientific and risk-based approach. Other than the United States, the European Union countries, and the United Kingdom, many other nations also announced travel restrictions. The following are the four major countries that announced recent restrictions:
Brazil announced to restrict travel to the region from six countries in Africa. In the same way, Iran will ban travelers from six southern African nations, including South Africa. State T.V. says that Iranians arriving from the region will be allowed to enter the country after testing negative twice. Moreover, Japan said that from Saturday, travelers from much of southern Africa will require quarantine for ten days and will go four tests during that time. India also decided to perform thorough testing and screening for South Africa, Hong Kong, and Botswana travelers.
Joe Phaahla, the Health Minister of South Africa, told the press that the flight bans against his country are unfair. Phaahla added that the reaction of some of the nations to impose travel bans are entirely against the standards and norms of the WHO. Israel also announced on Friday that it also confirmed its first case of Omicron in a traveler who returned from Malawi. As a result, the officials placed the traveler and two other suspected coronavirus cases in isolation.
Less than six percent of individuals only received full vaccination doses against coronavirus, and millions of vulnerable populations and health workers have not received a single shot. So, these circumstances can accelerate the spread of the virus, offering additional opportunities for the virus to evolve into a dangerous variant. These worries also battered financial markets, including the oil and travel industry.
What variants are and how do they happen?
- High numbers of cases increase the risk of mutations – the more a virus spreads, the more it will mutate. A large number of slight changes seen in the case of coronavirus so far – most of them with minor impact.
- Some mutations lead to new variants – sometimes, a virus changes in a way that helps it survive. Scientists are specifically concerned about changes to the spike protein – the portion that allows it to enter the human body through cells.