New COVID variant, Omicron, labeled concern by WHO

Coronavirus Updates

A sign reading ‘Stay safe’ in Regent Street, in London, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday, and stocks plunged in Asia and Europe in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

(ABC4) – Just a few days after a new variant of COVID-19 – B.1.1.529 – was detected in South Africa, the World Health Organization has already declared it a variant of concern.

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, the country’s most populous province. It’s unclear where the new variant actually arose, but it was first detected by scientists in South Africa and has also been seen in travelers to Hong Kong and Botswana.

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 the new variant, named B.1.1.529 is actually responsible.

From just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to 2,465 on Thursday. Struggling to explain the sudden rise in cases, scientists studied virus samples from the outbreak and discovered the new variant.

The World Health Organization, or WHO, met Friday to discuss the variant. In a statement released around midday, WHO says the B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to them from South Africa on Wednesday, November 24.

“The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021,” the statement reads.

Omicron, the name of the new variant, is described as having a large number of mutations, some of which WHO is calling concerning. Experts have found preliminary evidence suggesting an increased risk of reinfection with the Omicron B.1.1.529 variant compared to other variants of concern, or VOC.

Being named a variant of concern is the highest designation the WHO has in place for COVID mutations. These variants, according to WHO, have been found to have increased transmissibility and a decrease in the effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, like vaccines. The Delta variant is also a variant of concern.

WHO is now calling on countries to enhance their surveillance and sequencing efforts to understand circulation SARS-CoV-2 variants and to report initial cases or clusters associated with VOC infection.

During a Friday interview, White House chief medical official Dr. Anthony Fauci says arrangements have been made for U.S. scientists to speak with South African scientists regarding the variant. He explains while it is possible the variant is in the U.S., there have been no confirmed reports of it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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