What is the new COVID-19 variant?
London What is this new type of COVID-19?
South African scientists have identified a new version of the coronavirus this week that they say is behind the recent surge in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. It’s unclear where the new variant first appeared, but scientists in South Africa first alerted the World Health Organization, and it has now been seen in travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
Health Minister Joe Vahla said the variant is linked to the “massive rise” of cases in the past few days, although experts are still trying to determine whether the new variant is actually responsible.
From more than 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rise to 2,465 on Thursday. Struggling to explain the sudden rise in cases, scientists have studied virus samples from the outbreak and discovered the new variant.
In a statement on Friday, the World Health Organization classified it as a “variable of concern,” naming it “omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet.
After a group of experts met to assess the data, the UN health agency said that “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this type”, compared to other variables.
“The number of cases of this type appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa,” the World Health Organization said.
Why are scientists concerned about this new alternative?
It appears to have a large number of mutations – about 30 – in the coronavirus’ spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people.
Sharon Peacock, who led the genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far suggested the new variant contained mutations “consistent with improved transmissibility”, but said that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not.” a favour “.
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described Omicron as “the most mutated version of the virus we’ve seen,” including potentially troubling changes we’ve never seen before in the same virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief US infectious disease physician, said US officials arranged a call with their South African counterparts later on Friday to find out more details and said there was no indication that the surrogate had reached the US.
What is known and unknown about the variable?
Scientists know that omicron is genetically different from previous variants including beta and delta variants, but they don’t know if these genetic changes make it more transmissible or dangerous. So far, there is no indication that the variant causes more serious disease.
It will likely take weeks to sort out whether Omicron is more contagious and whether the vaccines are still effective against it.
Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said it was “extremely unlikely” that current vaccines would not work, noting that they are effective against many other variants.
Although some genetic changes in the omicron appear worrying, it remains unclear whether they would pose a threat to public health. Some of the earlier variables, such as the beta variable, bothered the scientists at first but eventually didn’t end up being so much.
“We don’t know if this new alternative can gain a foothold in areas where there are deltas,” said Peacock of the University of Cambridge. “The jury is out on how well this variable will perform as there are other variables in play.” To date, delta is by far the most prevalent form of COVID-19, accounting for more than 99% of sequences submitted to the world’s largest public database.
How did this new variable arise?
The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrisome genetic changes, often die. Scientists are watching the sequence of COVID-19 for mutations that could make the disease more transmissible or fatal, but they can’t tell just by looking at the virus.
The variant “may have evolved in an infected person but was then unable to eliminate the virus, giving the virus a chance to evolve genetically,” Peacock said, in a scenario similar to how experts think of the alpha variant – which was first identified in England – also emerged. , by a mutation in an immunocompromised person.
Are travel restrictions imposed by some countries justified?
Could. From noon on Friday, travelers arriving in the UK from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will have to self-isolate for 10 days. European Union countries moved quickly on Friday to ban air travel from South Africa, and the US also said it would ban travel by non-US citizens from South Africa and seven other African countries from Monday.
Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa, restricting travel from the region is “prudent” and will provide more time for authorities, said Neil Ferguson, an infectious disease expert at Imperial College London.
Jeffrey Barrett, director of COVID-19 genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, believes that early detection of the new variant may mean that restrictions imposed now will have a greater impact than they did when the delta variant first appeared.
“With Delta, it took several weeks in India’s terrible wave before it became clear what was going on, Delta had already implanted itself in many places in the world, and it was too late to do anything about it,” he said. “We may be at an early stage with this new variable, so there may still be time to do something about it.”
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