Omicron: the new covid-19 variant that scientists describe as 'horrific'

A new, more dangerous variant
'Horrific'
A dangerous 'crown'
'A major threat'
The WHO weighs in
Detected in southern Africa
Closed borders
EU's emergency brake
Market fears
Too early to tell
Johannesburg and Pretoria
Omicron number 1 in South Africa
Related to the AIDS epidemic in South Africa
'Large number of mutations in a single burst'
Unvaccinated youth
How will the new variant affect the pandemic?
A new, more dangerous variant

B.1.1.529 is a new Covid variant discovered in South Africa in mid-november. It could cause a turning point in the struggle against the coronavirus. Scientists, governments and economic markets are afraid that this mutation might extend the pandemic and set back all the advances made so far.

'Horrific'

Scientists are deeply concerned. Dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at the Imperial College of London, was quoted by The Guardian saying that the spike protein profile of this new variant is 'horrific', with 32 mutations.

A dangerous 'crown'

Spike proteins provide the coronavirus its distinctive 'crown' or 'corona' appearance. Mutations affecting the spike proteins have an impact on how the virus spreads and infects people, and they can also harm the effectiveness of the vaccines.

'A major threat'

South African authorities have reported that the number of daily covid-19 cases in the country has soared from less than 100 to over 1,200, according to Al Jazeera. Health Minister Joe Phaahla argued that the new variant was behind this surge and called it "a major threat".

The WHO weighs in

The World Health Organization has been in contact with South African medical experts to discuss this new variant. The WHO classified it on November 26 as a 'variant of concern' and gave it a name derived from the Greek alphabet, just like the other variants: Omicron. The organization stated that "it will take days to several weeks" to study and reach conclusive results about Omicron.

Detected in southern Africa

The first cases were reported in Botswana, and then in neighboring South Africa where the highest number of infections has been recorded. Subsequently, Omicron appeared in Australia, Belgium, Great Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands, France and Canada.

Closed borders

Several countries have decided to limit or suspend travel from southern Africa. They include the United States and Canada. One of the first to ban flights from the region was Great Britain.

EU's emergency brake

On the day that the WHO declared Omicron a variant of concern, all 27 members of the European Union approved an "emergency brake" to heavily restrict air traffic from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Market fears

The financial world suffered from the news as well. The Japanese stock market went down over fears of travel restrictions. In addition, the South African Rand plummeted to its lowest level in a year.

Too early to tell

"It will take us a few weeks to understand the impact this variant has", said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove who leads the covid-19 technical team of the WHO. Scientists still don't have a big enough sample to fully study this new version of the virus.

Johannesburg and Pretoria

The clusters of the new variant have so far been limited to some of the largest cities of the country, such as Johannesburg (pictured) and Pretoria. However, experts believe it won't take long before it spreads to the rest of the country.

Omicron number 1 in South Africa

Dr. Tulio de Oliveria, director of South Africa's Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, says that, in less than two weeks, B.1.1.529 will probably be the main virus strain in the country.

Related to the AIDS epidemic in South Africa

Many scientists posit that this new variant is related to the HIV epidemic hitting South Africa. One out of five adults in the country have HIV/AIDS, with over 7.7 million people living with the condition.

(Pictured is South African Vice President David Mabuza during the 2020 AIDS World Day Commemoration in Johannesburg.)

'Large number of mutations in a single burst'

"Given the large number of mutations it has accumulated, apparently in a single burst," director Francois Balloux, of the University College of London Genetics Institute says, "it likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient."

Unvaccinated youth

The New York Times reports that the Omicron variant has largely been detected among young people in South Africa. They form the group with the lowest vaccination rate in the country. Around 75% of South Africans between the ages of 18 and 34 haven't been inoculated against covid-19.

How will the new variant affect the pandemic?

There’s a possibility that the new variant won’t be able to survive for long. However, due the peculiarity of its mutations and the speed with which it is spreading, the only thing left is keep an eye on it and maintain precautions until scientists manage to know more.

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