After it was first reported Wednesday in South Africa, the new strain of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus has been found in Botswana, Israel, Belgium, and Israel.
“The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant,” said WHO in its statement. “In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant.”
Further, the variant has a “large number” of mutations, WHO said, which “suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other” COVID-19 variants of concern.
“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant,” according to WHO.
The U.N. health agency did not say whether common COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the Omicron variant, although the statement suggested that individuals should still receive the shot. Some scientists have said that due to the number of mutations, the strain may be able to penetrate through vaccines.
The United Kingdom, Japan, Israel, Kenya, and European countries have started to issue travel restrictions on southern African countries such as Botswana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, and others. Earlier, a WHO spokesman cautioned against quickly imposing travel restrictions until more data can be gathered.
A mother receives her Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19 in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg, Oct. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)
The EU Commission presidential chief spokesman Eric Mamer confirmed Friday that European Union member states have agreed to bring rapid travel restrictions from seven countries including Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
Around the same time, South African officials decried the moves and claimed the EU and others are acting too quickly. Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said the measures are “draconian” and accused the countries of trying to find “scapegoats.”
Susan Hopkins, the chief UK medical adviser, told BBC radio that much is still not known about the strain.
“If we look at those mutations, there’s mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evade the immune response both from vaccines and from natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility,” she remarked. “It’s a highly complex mutation, there’s also new ones that we have never seen before.”
Worries about the impact the variant might have, including government-mandated lockdowns, sent stock markets spiraling on Friday. Such concerns especially caused stocks of airlines and others in the travel sector, and oil to tumble.
Amid the scramble to bar air travel to South Africa, reporters said they saw throngs of people trying to flee the country via two international airports in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
On Friday, White House pandemic adviser Anthony Fauci told CNN that no final decision has yet been made on whether to ban air travel to southern Africa, adding there is no indication that the Omicron variant is in the United States. He also said it’s not clear whether the strain is resistant to common vaccines.