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New COVID variant has experts worried and restrictions growing. Here’s what you need to know

·8 min read

A reported new coronavirus variant with the unwieldy scientific lineage name B.1.1.529 has the world worried — and reacting with a growing wave of travel restrictions and one U.S. state already declaring a state of emergency.

And the variant rapidly gained another name.

“Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology ... the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern, named omicron,” the World Health Organization announced Friday afternoon.

The variant got its more pronounceable name from the Greek alphabet after the World Health Organization convened a group of scientists to assess the data from South Africa.

What we know so far about the new COVID variant

South African scientists identified a new version of the coronavirus this week that they say is behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, South Africa’s most populous province, according to WHO and Associated Press reports.

It’s unclear where the new variant actually came from.

The variant has been seen in travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel. Germany may have a probable case and Dutch authorities are checking for the new variant after 61 passengers on two flights from South Africa tested positive for COVID-19, the AP reported Saturday.

The New York Times reported a case in Israel was in a traveler who had recently arrived from Malawi. A case in Belgium was detected in a young, unvaccinated woman. She had recently returned from travel abroad — but not to South Africa or neighboring countries, according to Belgian researchers.

The United Kingdom’s Health Security Agency confirmed two cases in Essex and Nottingham after genomic sequencing tests. The cases were linked to travel to South Africa, the BBC reported Saturday.

South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential rise” of cases in the last few days, although experts are still trying to determine if B.1.1.529 is actually responsible, the AP reported.

South Africa’s health department said the number of new daily cases grew to 2,465 on Thursday.

The new variant, B.1.1.529 or omicron, has a large number of mutations.

“The concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an American infectious disease epidemiologist, in a video released by WHO Friday.

There are reportedly more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone, according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, The New York Times reported.

Young people, so far, are the ones who have accounted for most of these new cases, according to The New York Times. The young in the 18-to-34 age group have the lowest vaccination rate in South Africa, according to Phaahla.

“The more this virus circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to change and the more mutations we will see,” said Van Kerkhove, in the WHO video.

What is the world doing about the variant?

A resident of Alexandra Township gets tested for COVID-19 in Johannesburg on April 29, 2020.
A resident of Alexandra Township gets tested for COVID-19 in Johannesburg on April 29, 2020.

U.S. officials are consulting with South African scientists on the omicron variant.

New York declared a state of emergency. Gov. Kathy Hochul decided on Friday to make the declaration due to a rise in COVID-19 cases in New York and the threat of the omicron variant, Bloomberg News reported. Hochul said the variant hasn’t yet been detected in the state but she “decided to sign an executive order to allow the health department to limit non-essential, non-urgent procedures at hospitals and acquire critical supplies more quickly.” The order takes effect Dec. 3 and will be re-assessed on Jan. 15.

The World Health Organization convened a group of experts to assess the South African data.

Many countries have imposed travel restrictions on seven African nations that include South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini, CNN reported. Friday afternoon, the U.S. and Canada joined in imposing travel restrictions on these nations.

According to The New York Times, the U.S. travel ban begins Monday and will not apply to American citizens or lawful permanent residents but they will need to show a negative COVID test before coming to the United States.

These countries have, as of Saturday morning, imposed travel restrictions: United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Italy, France, Austria, Netherlands, Malta and other member states of the European Union, Australia, Brazil, Japan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Morocco, Philippines, Dubai and Jordan.

Canada’s Transport Minister Omar Alghabra urged Canadians to get vaccinated and follow public health advice, CBC reported.

Are existing vaccines effective against the new variant?

Researchers don’t yet know if the vaccines — including Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson — are effective against B.1.1.529 until more is learned about this variant.

Before the administration’s announcement Friday, the United States had been working to learn whether existing vaccines are effective against the omicron variant before considering a travel ban, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN.

A number of pharmaceutical firms, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, said they have plans in place to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of omicron, the AP reported.

In a conversation on BBC radio, Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the omicron variant.

Pollard said most of the omicrom mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in other variants. “That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we’ve moved through alpha, beta, gamma and delta,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today program, The Guardian reported.

The News & Observer reported that it will take about two weeks to lab test the effectiveness of the mRNA vaccines (Moderna and Pfizer), according to tweets by Andy Slavitt, the former acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services under President Barack Obama and senior adviser for President Biden’s COVID-19 response team.

Is the omicron variant in the United States?

“There’s no indication” that B.1.1.529 is in the United States right now, Fauci told CNN Friday. But on Saturday Fauci told NBC’s Weekend Today show, “When you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over.”

How is the variant affecting Florida airports?

“We haven’t heard anything yet that affects MIA, but other U.S. airports may have. MIA and other Florida airports do not have direct flights from South Africa,” said Miami-Dade Aviation spokesman Greg Chin, about Miami International Airport.

What’s the fallout from the variant so far?

In addition to travel restrictions, “U.S. stocks suffered from some of the biggest single-day declines of the year on a shortened trading day Friday due to Thanksgiving,” Fox Business reported.

New fears over a possible resurgent coronavirus led the Dow Jones Industrial Average to fall 905 points, or 2.5% — its worst drop of the year — while the S&P 500 fell 2.27% — its worst day since February. The Nasdaq Composite had its worst drop in two months, The Associated Press reported.

What you can do?

“Get vaccinated when you can, make sure you receive the full course of your doses and make sure you take steps to reduce your exposure and prevent yourself from passing that virus on to somebody else,” said U.S. epidemiologist Van Kerkhove in the WHO video — a view shared by health experts, including Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.