COVID-19 'Omicron' Variant First Detected in South Africa Prompting Travel Bans (UPDATE)

The World Health Organization has declared the COVID-19 variant first detected in South Africa to be a “variant of concern," and has named it Omicron.

COVID-19 testing in the city of Tshwane, South Africa.

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COVID-19 testing in the city of Tshwane, South Africa.

UPDATED 11/26 2 p.m. ET: The World Health Organization has declared the newly discovered COVID-19 variant, Omicron, to be a “variant of concern.”

Per a statement released through WHO’s website, the B.1.1.529 variant has been dubbed Omicron, following the naming conventions of the other variants of concern. “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning," reads the statement. "Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa."

Research into the Omicron variant is ongoing, and the WHO is asking for countries to pay close attention to the spread of the variant now that it has been detected outside of South Africa. It is expected that it could take at least a few weeks before scientists have a clearer understanding of Omicron, which has already resulted in travel bans.

See original story below.

Multiple nations are looking to ban travel from South Africa and nearby countries following the discovery of a potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant.

Per the Financial Times, the UK has begun the process of implementing travel restrictions on six countries in the south of Africa, while the European Union has announced it is recommending its nations restrict travel from the region. The countries impacted so far include South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, and Eswatini.

The UK’s health secretary Sajid Javid, in comments made on Friday, called the recently discovered variant a “huge international concern.” He added, “Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, and current vaccines may be less effective against it.”

Singapore has also announced a ban on travel from seven African countries. “There is currently insufficient evidence to determine if this variant is associated with any change in disease severity, antibody response or vaccine efficacy,” the city-state’s government said.

Per CNBC, WHO is set to hold a meeting on the new variant, currently known as B.1.1.529, on Friday. There have already been reports that the variant has been detected in Israel, Hong Kong, and Belgium, as the Guardian reported. 

On Thursday, the South Africa Department of Health said the variant is highly mutated even when compared to the highly infectious Delta variant. While research to determine how it impacts vaccines and transmissibility is ongoing, it is believed the variant could contain up to 50 mutations.

In a conversation on BBC Radio 4, per the Guardian, UK-based chief medical adviser Dr. Susan Hopkins said the variant is potentially the “most worrying we’ve seen” yet.

Reuters reports that no such travel bans have been decided upon in the United States, although that could change in the near future. “There is always the possibility of doing what the UK has done, namely block travel from South Africa and related countries," said Dr. Anthony Fauci in a CNN interview on Friday. "That's certainly something you think about and get prepared to do. You're prepared to do everything you need to protect the American public. But you want to make sure there's a basis for doing that."

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