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Nov. 27, 2021, 1:26 p.m. EST

WHO warns world leaders against knee-jerk reaction to coronavirus variant from South Africa as U.K. and EU impose travel bans

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.

See: South African scientists detect new coronavirus variant amid spike in cases

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 (NAS:AZN) (LON:UK:AZN) and the antibody treatment developed by Vir Biotechnology (NAS:VIR) and GlaxoSmithKline (NYS:GSK) (LON:UK:GSK) , may hold up well, they said.

Chris Meekins, health care analyst at Raymond James, said as long as the virus is spreading freely in parts of the world, variants will emerge. He also noted that it remains unknown whether this one is either more transmissible or more lethal.

“Information is rapidly evolving and there will be many preliminary takes that turn out to be very wrong,” he said in a note to clients.

The news comes at a bad time for Europe, which the WHO said this week was again the only region where cases are rising on a weekly basis. WHO’s Europe director, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that, without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by the spring, boosting the pandemic’s toll to 2.2 million. The U.S. State Department promptly warned Americans against travel to Germany or Denmark.

The U.S., meanwhile, is still averaging more than 1,000 COVID deaths a day, according to a New York Times tracker, and cases and hospitalizations are rising again. As the vast majority of those becoming infected or being hospitalized or dying are unvaccinated people, it makes it more important than ever that those people get their shots and avoid dying a preventable death.

See now: German air force to move ICU patients as COVID cases rise

In medical news, Merck (NYS:MRK) and partner Ridgeback Biotherapeutics said their COVID-19 antiviral molnupiravir reduced the risk of hospitalization or death in at-risk adults with mild to moderate COVID to 6.8% from 9.7% in the placebo group in the latest update of data from its study dubbed MOVe-OUT. That is equal to an absolute risk reduction of 3% and a relative risk reduction of 30%.

An earlier analysis of the data showed it reduced the risk of hospitalization or death by 50%. The companies have shared these latest data with the Food and Drug Administration, which is currently reviewing the information provided for a possible emergency-use authorization for the treatment.

The European Union drug regulator authorized Pfizer (NYS:PFE) and BioNTech’s (NAS:BNTX) vaccine for use in children aged 5 to 11, clearing the way for shots to be administered to millions of elementary-school-aged children on the continent, the AP reported. It is the first time the European Medicines Agency has cleared a COVID-19 vaccine for use in young children.

Most people originally vaccinated with J&J’s (NYS:JNJ) shot are choosing other vaccines if they get a booster, new government data show, partly reflecting concerns about the lower effectiveness of the drug maker’s vaccine, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Latest tallies

The global tally for the coronavirus-borne illness climbed above 260.3 million on Friday, while the death toll edged above 5.18 million, according to  data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University .

The U.S. continues to lead the world with a total of 48.1 million cases and 775,833 deaths. 

India is second by cases after the U.S. at 34.6 million and has suffered 467,468 deaths. Brazil has the second highest death toll at 613,642 and 22 million cases.

In Europe, Russia has the most fatalities at 265,134 deaths, followed by the U.K. at 144,876.

China,  where the virus was first discovered late in 2019,  has had 111,081 confirmed cases and 4,809 deaths, according to its official numbers, which are widely held to be massively understated.

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