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Next Worry, Omicron

by: Lexi Lonas, 
Posted:  Updated: 

The announcement of a COVID-19 variant called B.1.1529 this week by scientists in South Africa, where it was first detected, has sent governments and financial markets worldwide reeling.

The World Health Organization (WHO) held an emergency meeting on Friday, where it designated the new strain, which it called omicron, a “variant of concern,” or VOC, a label applied when a particular strain is especially virulent, transmissible, or able to defeat public health measures.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average suffered its worst single-day drop of the year, plummeting more than 900 points.

And multiple nations, including the U.S., quickly imposed travel restrictions as they detected the omicron variant in Israel, Hong Kong, Botswana, and Belgium.

Infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said Friday the U.S. is “rushing” to obtain information on B.1.1529 but emphasized there is not enough data for immediate action.

Here’s what to know about omicron:

The U.S. restricts travel to southern Africa

U.S. senior administration officials said Friday the U.S. would restrict travel to eight African countries starting Monday due to the variant. The countries affected are South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.

Officials say they made the out of an “abundance of caution,” and the U.S. government medical experts and the COVID-19 Response Team made the recommendations. The restriction does not apply to American citizens or lawful permanent residents.

In an interview with CNN Friday, Fauci said that U.S. and South African scientists would meet regarding the new variant and its molecular makeup.

Although Fauci says no cases have been detected so far in the U.S., he added scientists need more information on the variant’s molecular makeup to test for it.

“Right now, we’re getting the material together with our South African colleagues to get a situation where you could directly test it. So, right now, you’re talking about sort of like a red flag that this might be an issue — but we don’t know,” Fauci said.

“Once you test it, you’ll know for sure whether or not it does or does not evade the antibodies that we make, for example, against the virus, through a vaccine,” he added. “The answer is we don’t know right now, but we’re going to find out for sure.”

Omicron has a high number of mutations.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the WHO said in a Friday statement. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs.”

Tulio de Oliveira, a bioinformatics professor at two universities in South Africa, said that the new variant is “clearly different” from past ones such as delta.

De Oliveira said at least 50 B.1.1529 mutations had been identified, with more than 30 in the spike protein, the region interacting with human cells before cell entry.

In an interview with CNN on Friday, Fauci said the variant is spreading at “a reasonably rapid rate.”

One hundred new cases so far have been linked to the B.1.1529, said Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist and head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. 

Although it is unclear whether the current coronavirus vaccines will be as effective against the new variant, many scientists appear confident they will, as was the case for other variants such as the highly contagious delta.

Spike protein leads to concerns.

A particular concern in the new variant is the mutations affecting the spike protein, potentially making it more contagious.

Fauci told the outlet the mutations in the spike protein “are raising some concern, particularly concerning possibly transmissibility increase, and possibly evasion of the immune response.”

The U.K. Health Security Agency has also recognized the potential for the mutations in the spike protein to make the variant more transmissible; however, they need more evidence to support the conclusions.

First found in South Africa, but now appearing elsewhere

They detected the first case of the B.1.1529 variant in South Africa, which has struggled to contain the coronavirus along with its ongoing AIDS/HIV concerns.

Francois Balloux, the UCL Genetics Institute director, said the new variant likely developed in an immunocompromised person since the virus can last longer than usual in those individuals.

Possibly, the variant occurred in an individual who was untreated for AIDS/HIV, as South Africa has the world’s highest AIDS rate.

The number of cases rapidly increased in South Africa after finding only 100 earlier this month, and more than 1,200 cases in the country were known as of Wednesday, Axios reported.

As a result, at least ten countries have banned travel from southern African regions to keep the virus from spreading. Cases, however, have already been identified in Europe and Eastern Asia.

It is tanking markets.

The announcement of the new variant has tanked markets across the world as concerns raised on how much longer the B.1.1529 could make the pandemic last. 

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 900 points on Friday, with stocks in oil, technology, and electric vehicle companies dropping significantly. 

Japan’s Nikkei and China’s Hang Seng index fell by two percent as countries moved to restrict travel.