A new Covid-19 variant, now named the omicron variant, was detected in South Africa on Wednesday, prompting renewed concern about the pandemic, a major stock market drop, and the imposition of new international travel restrictions to stop the spread.
Though the variant’s existence was first reported by South Africa, it has also been found in Belgium, Botswana, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia meaning the variant has already spread — though how far is unclear, as new cases continue cropping up around the world.
While it will take scientists some weeks to understand the omicron variant, including how quickly it can spread and what the illness from infection with the variant looks like, the World Health Organization has already labeled omicron a “variant of concern,” which means it could be more transmissible, more virulent, or more able to evade the protection granted by vaccines than the original strain of Covid-19.
More information about the new variant is sure to emerge over the coming days and weeks, but here’s what experts are saying so far;
Early evidence suggests that the omicron variant is highly contagious, possibly more so than the delta variant. With more than 30 mutations on the spike protein — the part of the virus that binds to a human cell, infecting it — omicron could both be more transmissible and have more mechanisms to evade immunity already conferred by vaccines or prior infection.
“The mutations would strongly suggest that it would be more transmissible and that it might evade some of the protection of monoclonal antibodies and convalescent plasma, and perhaps even antibodies that are induced by vaccine,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week on Sunday.
As Fauci emphasized, however, the vaccines still work, and they are still the best way to protect yourself from the virus.
“I don’t think there’s any possibility that [the omicron variant] could completely evade any protection by vaccine,” Fauci said. “It may diminish it a bit, but that’s the reason why you boost.”
Meanwhile, the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has confirmed the first cases of the Omicron variant in the country.
The agency stated this in a statement on Wednesday morning signed by its Director-General, Dr Ifedayo Adetifa.