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WHO labels new COVID-19 variant 'of concern', names it Omicron

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By Alice Tidey
A woman has a transgenic test made at the Christmas market during its preparation in Strasbourg, eastern France, Nov. 25, 2021.
A woman has a transgenic test made at the Christmas market during its preparation in Strasbourg, eastern France, Nov. 25, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday categorised the latest COVID-19 variant first detected in South Africa as "of concern" and named it Omicron.

"This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of infection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs (variants of concerns)," the United Nations' health agency said in a statement.

The variant, known as B.1.1.529, has been named Omicron, following the WHO's decision to label variants of interest and concern using letters of the Greek alphabet.

Omicron, like the Beta variant, was first detected in South Africa and was reported to WHO on November 24 from a specimen collected on November 9.

It has since been reported in several countries including Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong, and Israel.

"Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation," the WHO statement explained.

"Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage," it added.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) wrote in its latest report released on Friday that "there are concerns that the high number of spike protein changes may lead to a significant change in antigenic properties of the virus."

"Based on the available evidence, this variant is likely to be associated with a very high transmissibility and significant immune escape," it added.

Prior to the WHO designating it a "variant of concern," several countries including France, Germany and Italy had announced new travel restrictions for travellers from South Africa and neighbouring countries including a 14-day quarantine period for travellers whether they are vaccinated or not.

The European Commission recommended on Friday afternoon that other member states issued similar restrictions which were then swiftly approved.

The measures, including tests, quarantine and contact tracing, concern seven countries from the Southern Africa region, Eric Mamer, the EU Commission spokesperson said. These are Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen added that she has spoken with scientists and vaccine manufacturers regarding the new variant.

"They, too, fully support such precautionary measures to avoid international spreading of the concerning variant," she said in a statement.

She urged Europeans to get vaccinated, stressing that it "helps to slow down the spread of the virus."

"Europe has taken precautions," she went on. "The European Union's contract with manufacturers says that the vaccine must be adapted immediately to new variants as they emerge."

A spokesperson for BioNTech told Euronews that the company, behind the most used vaccine in Europe, "have immediately initiated investigations on variant B.1.1.529."

"The variant differs significantly from previously observed variants as it has additional mutations located in the spike protein. We expect more data from the laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest. These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally."

"Pfizer and BioNTech have taken actions months ago to be able to adapt the mRNA vaccine within 6 weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days in the event of an escape variant. To that end, the companies have begun clinical trials with variant-specific vaccines (alpha and delta) to collect safety and tolerability data that can be provided to regulators as part of the blueprint studies in the event of a needed variant-specific vaccine," they added.

Moderna, another vaccine maker, announced that it is "testing three existing COVID-19 vaccine booster candidates against the Omicron variant."

It said in a statement that given the risk of very high transmissibility and immunity from current jabs, "a booster dose of an authorised vaccine represents the only currently available strategy for boosting waning immunity."

"The company is working rapidly to test the ability of the current vaccine dose to neutralise the Omicron variant and data is expected in the coming weeks," it added.

It is currently testing or studying using a higher dose of its mRNA jab as well as two multi-valent booster candidates designed to anticipate mutations. It also said it "will rapidly advance an Omicron-specific booster candidate."

Canada, the UK and the US have also closed their borders with several Southern Africa countries due to the variant.

This story was updated as a previous version erroneously stated the Alpha variant had also originated from South Africa.