WHO says early evidence “suggests an increased risk of re-infection” with the Omicron variant.
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The US will ban travel from South Africa and seven other countries from Monday. The move comes amid fears that a new COVID variant discovered in South Africa may be more transmissible and vaccine-resistant than the delta variant.
The move comes after President Joe Biden briefed on Friday about the version by Dr. Anthony Fauci, his chief mediocre adviser and other members of the COVID response team. The new version had already prompted several European countries, including Israel, Singapore and the UK, to block travel to southern Africa.
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“As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries,” Biden said in a statement. “As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by the advice of the science and my medical team.”
US air travel restrictions will apply to travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
The variant, named Omicron by the World Health Organization on Friday, was first identified in South Africa on Tuesday as b.188.8.131.529. Scientists are concerned about it because of its high number of mutations. Their concern is that vaccines designed to target previous COVID-19 variants may be less effective.
The WHO acknowledged in a Friday release that it was “concerning” and said that preliminary evidence “suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this type.”
As of Thursday, there were 22 known cases of Omicron, according to South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases. It has also been found in Botswana, South Africa’s neighbor to the north, as well as Israel, Belgium and Hong Kong, which are thousands of miles apart.
“This version took us by surprise,” Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, told a press conference on Thursday. “It’s a huge leap forward in evolution, with many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of delta.”
CNBC reported that news of the variant caused US stocks to fall on Friday.
A ‘worry form’
In the nearly two years since the disease’s first outbreak, more than 260 million cases of COVID-19 have been reported worldwide, resulting in more than 5.1 million deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard. Vaccines from Pfizer-BioNtech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have proven highly effective in stopping the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and reducing the impact for those who contract it. But vaccination rates vary widely around the world and from country to country.
Whether mutations to Omicron will result in a more dangerous, transmissible and vaccine-resistant form of COVID-19 is yet unknown. COVID-19 mutates constantly, and many of those mutations,
“We don’t know much about it yet,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID, said in a livestream on Thursday. “What we do know is that this variant carries a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an effect on the behavior of the virus.”
“It will take us a few weeks to understand what impact this version will have.”
On Thursday, UK State Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced that South Africa and five other southern African countries – Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini – would be added to the UK’s travel red list. Flights to those countries are being stopped, while passengers returning to the UK from those countries will have to be quarantined.
The New York Times noted that Singapore, Italy, France and Israel also placed Mozambique on their red list. Dubai said it would restrict the entry of travelers from those countries from Monday.
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the Executive Branch of the European Union, tweeted on Friday That his commission would also propose to ban air travel from southern Africa to European countries.
The vaccine co-developed by Pfizer and BioNTech is the most widely administered in the US, according to CDC data, and a BioNTech spokesperson told Reuters it will be able to quickly determine how effective the vaccine is against the variant.
“We expect more data from laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest. These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 may be an escaped variant that requires adjustments to our vaccine.” if the variant spreads globally,” the spokesperson said on Friday. An escaped variant would counteract the targeted immune response caused by vaccination.
A new form has emerged in Africa that comes as little surprise to many epidemiologists. Viruses, such as those that cause COVID, mutate during replication. In places with low vaccination and high case numbers, new variants are more likely to arise, as in the case of, African countries have low vaccination rates, and large parts of the population are poor enough to miss work through shelter-in-place orders or to seek medical help. South Africa is the wealthiest country in Africa, yet it has a double vaccination rate of around 23%.
Nerdshala’s Carrie Mihalsik contributed to this report.