By Ciara Linnane
The World Health Organization is pleading with world leaders not to engage in knee-jerk reactions to a new variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 that has emerged in South Africa, as a number of countries immediately announced travel bans from that country and some of its neighbors.
The variant, named B.1.1.529, was discussed by WHO experts at a meeting Friday to assess whether it is more highly transmissible or more dangerous than previous variants and whether to assign it a name based on the Greek alphabet . The team decided to name it ‘omicron’ and designate it a “variant of concern” that will be closely monitored.
“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the group said in a statement. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.”
The group called on countries to enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts, to submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available databas and to report cases and clusters to the WHO.
Meantime, “Individuals are reminded to take measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19, including proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated,” said the statement.
The U.K. and European Union were taking no chances and announced bans on travelers from South Africa and other countries in southern Africa early Friday, while others, including Japan, said travelers would be forced to quarantine in government-run accommodation for 10 days to allow for regular testing, as the Associated Press reported.
Senior administration officials said later that the U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa, along with seven other African countries, starting Monday. The list includes Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.
The policy is being implemented “out of an abundance of caution,” they said. “The WHO has now identified this as a variant of concern. Our scientists and public health officials are working quickly to learn more about this variant.”
Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO head of emergencies, stressed the importance of waiting to see what the data show.
“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel. It’s really important that we remain open, and stay focused,” Ryan said before the EU announcement.
Analysts at Evercore said the strain appears to have become dominant in South Africa, where it is accounting for 90% of cases in Gauteng, the country’s smallest province, with more than 1,000 cases a day being estimated.
The strain, which “may have evolved in an immune-compromised patient,” is marked by “32 mutations in the spike protein (including some in the RBD) and is reportedly the ‘most distant’ (i.e. mutated) from the original strain yet,” Evercore analyst Josh Schimmer wrote in a note to clients. “It has RBD and NTD or mutations associated with resistance to neutralizing antibodies, and has potentially enhanced transmission.” (NTD stands for N-terminal domain, while RBD stands for receptor-binding domain.)
Others backed Ryan in emphasizing that not a great deal is known about the variant and noting that South Africa is a leader in sequencing, an important benefit to understanding more about how it works. As South Africa has a very low vaccination rate, the strain has had plenty of opportunity to spread there.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top medical adviser to President Joe Biden, said that the U.S. is rushing to gather data but that no decision on travel bans had been made yet.
“That’s certainly something you think about and get prepared to do,” he told CNN. “You’re prepared to do everything you need to protect the American public. But you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that.”
Evercore offered a link to a Twitter thread from Bloom Lab, which specializes in researching viruses, in which experts said it may have more implications for certain antibody treatments that were already struggling with other variants. For now, it appears that the cocktail developed by AstraZeneca /zigman2/quotes/200304487/composite AZN +4.20% /zigman2/quotes/203048482/delayed UK:AZN -0.24% and the antibody treatment developed by Vir Biotechnology /zigman2/quotes/214486077/composite VIR -3.25% and GlaxoSmithKline /zigman2/quotes/209463850/composite GSK +3.60% /zigman2/quotes/200381158/delayed UK:GSK -0.88% , may hold up well, they said.