An advisory panel of the World Health Organisation classified a new COVID-19 variant first detected in South Africa as a highly transmissible virus of concern and named it omicron under its Greek-letter system.
The WHO had earlier cautioned countries against hastily imposing travel restrictions linked to the new B.1.1.529 variant of COVID-19, saying they should take a “risk-based and scientific approach”.
A closed-door experts’ meeting from Geneva, convened by WHO, was conducted earlier in the day to assess the new COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529 and to designate it as either a variant of interest or a variant of concern, spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said.
The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on November 24. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on November 9.
This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. 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, the WHO said.
Global authorities reacted with alarm on Friday to a new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa, with the EU and Britain among those tightening border controls as scientists sought to find out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant.
“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” Lindmeier told a U.N. briefing in Geneva. “The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures.”
It would take several weeks to determine the variant’s transmissibility and the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics against it, he said, noting that 100 sequences of the variant have been reported so far.
People should continue to wear masks whenever possible, avoid large gatherings, ventilate rooms and maintain hand hygiene, Lindmeier added.
“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” said Maria van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and WHO technical lead on COVID-19.
“This is one to watch, I would say we have concern. But I think you would want us to have concern,” she told viewers of an event on social media on Thursday.
Van Kerkhove said that it was good that variants were being detected, adding: “It means that we have a system in place.”
Lindmeier said that the U.N. agency’s technical advisory group and other experts on virus evolution were conferring with South African researchers.