It has been nearly two years since COVID-19 originated, and the world has weathered the various threats it brought along with it. The global community has navigated through different variants including Alpha and Delta, but there is a new version that has rung the alarm bells once again.
Although not a lot is known about the new variant currently, here is what we know so far:
How it All Began
It is not clear where the new variant originated from, but it was first identified by scientists in South Africa and has now been observed internationally.
The WHO said Friday that the first case of the new variant was reported to the WHO from South Africa on 24 November 2021, whereas the first known confirmed infection of the new variant was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021.
WHO Meeting Outcome
In the meeting on Friday (26 November), the WHO categorized the new variant as a ‘Variant of Concern’ (VOC), naming it Omicron, as per the suggestions of the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE).
The new variant has a large number of mutations and has a higher risk of reinfection as per the preliminary evidence. PCR tests can also successfully detect the variant.
In an update released by the WHO on Sunday (28 November 2021), the regulatory body stated that currently, there is no clarity regarding the transmissibility rates of Omicron. However, studies are underway to further understand the recent spikes in cases. WHO further apprised that it is not clear whether the infection from the new variant carries a higher disease severity and also informed that the UN authority is working with technical partners to understand the potential impact of vaccines on the new variant.
After the emergence of Omicron, the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) on Saturday issued a directive to restrict the entry of travelers from six South African countries and Hong Kong.
The six South African countries include South Africa, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Botswana.
“Consequent to the emergence of Omicron COVID variant in South Africa and its spread to adjoining regions, a complete ban has been imposed on direct/indirect inbound travel from South Africa, Hong Kong, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Botswana,” the statement released by NCOC read.
The NCOC has also placed the aforementioned countries in category ‘C.’ The statement by the authority further informed that Pakistani nationals, traveling from these countries due to an extreme emergency, would only be allowed to after obtaining exemptions and strict testing and diagnostic protocols would be ensured for these passengers.
As per the statement, the protocols include vaccination certificate, negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) report (maximum 72 hours old) before boarding and rapid antigen test (RAT) on arrival at the airport.
Furthermore, the statement specified, “RAT negative cases would undergo three days of mandatory home-quarantine where re-RAT would be conducted on the third day by the civil administration. RAT positive cases will undergo 10 days mandatory quarantine … and PCR test will be conducted on the 10th day in quarantine.”
However, in order to facilitate Pakistani nationals in these countries, the NCOC has allowed entry without the necessity of exemptions, but the testing protocols would still remain applicable.
The NCOC further directed the Aviation Division, Airport Management, and ASF to devise a mechanism for screening the passengers from these countries arriving through indirect flights.
Countries around the globe have started reporting their first cases of Omicron over the weekend and several countries have imposed travel restrictions to protect themselves against the new variant.
Following the surfacing of the new variant in South Africa, the United Kingdom was the first to restrict air travel from South Africa along with Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, and Zambia. As per a CNN report, the EU has also agreed to introduce ‘temporary restrictions’ on all air travel from the affected South African countries.
The U.S., Australia, Canada, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Philipines, and Singapore, are the major countries among 44 countries to impose a travel ban on the South African region.
With reports of Omicron cases in Hong Kong, Pakistan and India have imposed travel restrictions on Hong Kong along with the countries in the South African region, whereas Japan and Israel have placed a ban on all foreign travelers.
In response to this, South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, condemned the travel ban imposed on South Africa and its neighboring countries. In a speech on Sunday, the President expressed ‘deep disappointment’ and said that the bans have no scientific basis and are a result of discrimination against South Africa. He appealed for the lifting of the travel restrictions.
Following the news of the new variant, global markets were rattled. Oil prices slumped by more than 10 percent. On Friday, the S&P 500 plummeted by 2.3 percent and the Nasdaq composite index dropped 2.2 percent in the US. European stock markets fell 3 percent to 5 percent. The decline was replicated in Asia as well, where the Nikkei 225 in Japan closed 2.5 percent lower, and the Hang Seng Index in Hong Kong declined 2.7 percent.
Countries That Have Confirmed New Variant
South Africa was the first country to identify the new variant. Despite travel restrictions being placed hours after South African scientists announced the discovery of the new variant, Omicron has made its way into several countries.
So far, 13 passengers arriving at the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday tested positive for the new variant. Two cases linked to travels from South Africa have also been reported in the UK, whereas Hong Kong has also reported 3 cases of Omicron.
According to Washington Post, the officials of the following countries have announced cases of the new variant:
What Do Experts Say?
As fear regarding the new variant grips the world, scientists are relentlessly working to solve the puzzle of Omicron.
Chief Medical Advisor to the US President, Dr. Anthony Fauci, in an update to the US President, Joe Biden, said,
While it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID.
Regarding the efficacy of the vaccines in combating the new variant, Moderna’s Chief Medical Officer, Paul Burton, assured that the vaccine maker could roll out a new reformulated vaccine against the new variant by early 2022. The Moderna Chief told BBC in an interview:
We should know about the ability of the current vaccine to provide protection in the next couple of weeks, but the remarkable thing about the MRNA vaccines, Moderna platform is that we can move very fast. If we have to make a brand new vaccine I think that’s going to be early 2022 before that’s really going to be available in large quantities.
Talking to Reuters, Pfizer said it will be able to manufacture and distribute an updated version of its COVID-19 vaccine within 100 days if the new variant Omicron is found to be resistant to its current vaccine.
“Pfizer and BioNTech have taken actions months ago to be able to adapt the mRNA vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days in the event of an escape variant,” the company said in a statement.
Pfizer expects to know within two weeks whether the variant is resistant to its current vaccine.
Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are also currently conducting tests to find whether the variant is resistant to their vaccines.