The New Covid ‘Omicron’ Variant Has the Globe Freaking Out

Global health authorities are scrambling to collect information about a new coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa that appears to both be extremely contagious and possess an “unusual constellation” of mutations that could challenge the effectiveness of available vaccines.

The emergence of the omicron variant has led the United States and the European Union to impose travel restrictions and roiled global markets. Sajid Javid, the U.K.’s health minister is saying the new variant “is of huge international concern.” Dr. Anthony Fauci is saying he would “not be surprised” if the variant is already in the United States and that we should “ultimately” expect it to “go all over.”  Here’s what you need to know:

What’s the New Variant Called?

The World Health Organization on Friday met about the new strain and named it the “omicron variant,” keeping with the greek letter system that gave us the “delta variant” earlier this year. Previously, it had been known by the scientific denomination, B.1.1.529, or as “the South African variant” because it was first identified in that country and is spreading actively there.

Why Is the New Variant So Concerning?

The variant appears to have at least 50 mutations, including some 30 changes to the spike protein that plays a key role in the virus’ ability to enter human cells. (Coronavirus vaccines train the immune system to target an unaltered spike protein.) Andy Slavitt, who served as the Biden administration’s Senior Advisor for Covid Response, tweets that the new variant’s “mutation profile” is driving concerns among scientists that “neither prior immunity nor a vaccine will be effective — or as effective — at preventing spread & infection.” The WHO warns that “preliminary evidence suggests” the variant poses “an increased risk of reinfection.”

Is It More Contagious?

It’s hard to discern whether it’s more contagious than others, but the evidence suggest the new variant is highly contagious. Tulio de Oliveira directs the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation in South Africa. He calls B.1.1.529 a “variant of great concern” and tweeted yesterday that: “B.1.1.529 seems to spread very quick!” noting that the variant now “dominates all infections following a devastating Delta wave in South Africa.” The WHO underscored this concern, writing: “this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.”

Has the Variant Spread Outside of South Africa?

Yes. The variant has already been detected in neighboring Botswana as well as in Israel, Belgium, the United Kingdom, and Hong Kong. The variant was detected in several travelers, either during routine pre-journey testing or post-arrival quarantine. Of concern, several of the travelers were fully vaccinated.

How Are Countries Responding?

On Friday the Biden administration announced a travel ban for visitors from South Africa and seven other nearby African nations. Earlier, the European Union blocked fights from South Africa in an attempt to slow the variant’s spread. Global markets are down nearly two percent in Friday trading.

When Will We Know More?

According to Slavitt, the world will have to live with uncertainty for a while: “It will take 2 weeks or so to test in a lab whether the mRNA vaccines are effective,” he tweets, “and if so, how effective they are.”

What’s the Worst Case Scenario?

If the new variant is found to evade the current vaccines, the shots may have to be re-engineered. Slavitt tweets that both Pfizer and Moderna can likely come up with new vaccine formulations in as little as 100 days — but that bottlenecks in approvals, manufacturing and distribution mean targeted new drugs would likely not be available until next summer.

Where Can I Get More Information?

The WHO has released a two minute video that gives a substantive overview about what’s known and unknown about the omicron variant. It closes by calling on individuals to lean into hygiene, masking, ventilation and other proven public health measures to avoid exposure.

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