The new Covid-19 variant (named B.1.1.529 or Omicron) detected last week in South Africa is raising serious concerns among scientists. Firstly detected only in small numbers, the variant is now spreading across the world. South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla labeled it as a “serious concern” and “a major threat.”
The new variant presents a constellation of mutations which could make it more transmissible. It might also spread more rapidly and efficiently, as it is able to circumvent the immune system. According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the Omicron variant represents a “high to very high” risk for Europe as it would present an increased risk of contagion compared to other variants, including Delta, and it may significantly reduce the effectiveness of vaccines.
Last week, several countries – including the US, EU, UK, Brazil, and other major destinations – announced travel restrictions as a precaution amid concerns over the new variant. However, Omicron has already been detected outside the African country. Besides South Africa, the Omicron variant has been detected in Malawi, Israel, Botswana, Hong Kong, The United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy, Germany, and Czech Republic.
In The Netherlands, 61 passengers who landed in Amsterdam from Johannesburg and Cape Town tested positive for Covid-19 upon arrival. Passengers who tested positive have been quarantined at a hotel near Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. The positive tests are being analysed to determine whether it is the new Omicron variant detected in South Africa and considered “worrying” by the WHO.
In response to the travel restrictions being imposed, South Africa has said it is being made the scapegoat, adding that it is being punished for its ability to detect new variants more quickly. However, the good news is that so far people infected with the variant in South Africa are not seriously ill. Angelique Coetzee, president of the South African Doctors’ Association, told the BBC that the main complaints are sore muscles and fatigue.
Since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa has recorded around 2.95 million infections, and 89,657 related deaths. Before the outbreak of the new variant, South African authorities had predicted a fourth wave starting during the holiday season, around the middle of December.