The World Health Organization has declared the new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa as a variant of concern and named it omicron.
WHO’s technical advisory group on SARS-CoV-2 virus evolution met on Friday to assess the new B.1.1.529 variant’s potential risk to public health and decide whether it should be deemed a “variant of concern” or a “variant of interest.” Variant of concern is the more serious designation. The delta variant that is dominating infections in Canada and around the world is a variant of concern.
Experts monitor variants of concern (VOCs) closely because they could spread more easily, may cause more severe illness, or because current vaccines may be less effective against them, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
It will take time to determine if any of those are happening, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, said.
“It’s really important that we have good SARS-Cov-2 surveillance around the world, including better genomic sequencing because we want to be able to detect this variant where it is circulating,” Van Kerkhove said.
The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution met today to review what is known about the <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> variant B.1.1.529.<br>They advised WHO that it should be designated a Variant of Concern.<br>WHO has named it Omicron, in line with naming protocols <a href=”https://t.co/bSbVas9yds”>https://t.co/bSbVas9yds</a> <a href=”https://t.co/Gev1zIt1Ek”>pic.twitter.com/Gev1zIt1Ek</a>
“We understand that people are concerned,” she said, but emphasized that people can reduce their risk by continuing to physically distance, wear masks correctly, avoid crowded spaces, ensure they are in well-ventilated areas and getting vaccinated.
“These proven public health measures have never been more important.”
South African scientists detected around 100 cases of the new variant while they were doing genomic sequencing in the country’s most populated province, Gauteng.
On Wednesday they informed the government that they were concerned about the variant’s large number of mutations, including to the spike protein, that could affect transmissibility. The South African government then reported it to the WHO.
“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” said a WHO statement issued after the meeting on Friday.
“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.”
Omicron highlights importance of vaccination: experts
Canadian health experts on Friday cautioned against alarm and said it would take time to assess the potential impact of the variant and that there’s no evidence that existing COVID-19 vaccines wouldn’t continue to be effective.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at University Health Network in Toronto, urged Canadians to get vaccinated if they haven’t already.
In addition, he said the discovery of a new variant shows the importance of ensuring everyone in the world has access to the vaccine because variants are more likely to emerge in regions where there is unchecked viral transmission.
WATCH | Bogoch on the importance of vaccination:
“[We must] absolutely accelerate vaccination in unvaccinated populations,” Dr. Prabhat Jha, a global epidemiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, told CBC News Network on Friday.
“They’re the ones — be they in Florida or be they in South Africa — that are the ones that are the variant factories. This is where the variants are occurring. And so we need to raise the vaccination rates worldwide.”
Only 24 per cent of South Africa’s population had been vaccinated against COVID-19, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus research centre. The number of shots being given per day is also relatively low, at less than 130,000. That’s significantly below the government’s target of 300,000.
While the continent struggled initially to obtain sufficient doses, some countries, including South Africa, now have too much stock, with vaccine hesitancy and apathy slowing the inoculation campaign.
“This virus can evolve in the absence of adequate levels of vaccination. It’s upsetting that it takes this to happen to get the point across,” Richard Lessells, a South Africa-based infectious disease expert, told Reuters.
WATCH | Unvaccinated populations are ‘variant factories,’ epidemiologist says:
South Africa has been the country worst affected in Africa in terms of total reported COVID-19 cases and deaths, with nearly three million infections and more than 89,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic. It had been experiencing a lull after a severe third wave of infections, until last week when new infections started to pick up.
Now that omicron has been designated a variant of concern, governments around the world are asked to “enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants” and report any initial cases or clusters to WHO, its statement said.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 evolves as it spreads, and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out.
The omicron variant has also been found in travellers from southern Africa to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
Omicron is the fifth coronavirus variant of concern named by the WHO. The other four are: alpha, beta, gamma and delta.
There are two coronavirus variants of interest: lambda and mu.