The World Health Organization has identified a new strain of the COVID-19 virus as a “variant of concern.” The variant, which WHO has dubbed ‘omicron,’ was first detected in South Africa, prompting a number of nations to adopt travel restrictions on several sub-Saharan African countries.
The US has announced that, beginning Monday, Nov. 29, travel to the US will be restricted from seven countries in Africa, including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
The proclamation signed by President Joe Biden restricts travel for individuals who have been “physically present” in the designated countries during the “14-day period preceding their entry, or attempted entry into the United States.”
Last week, the UK Health Security Agency put six African countries on its “red list,” including South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia, and on Sunday added Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia. Non-UK and Irish residents who have been in these countries in the previous ten days will be refused entry into England.
Meanwhile the European Union has announced restrictions on travel to and from seven southern Africa nations. Other nations reportedly issuing travel bans to the region also include Australia, Canada, Iran, Japan and Thailand, with more being added almost daily. The decision to impose the bans comes as countries attempt to limit the spread of the new strain of COVID-19 while scientists scramble to learn more about the risks.
According to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, the travel restrictions will be in effect “until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”
However, despite the rapid response to the discovery of the omicron variant, health experts are warning that the new strain may have already begun spreading. A limited number of cases have been reported in Canada, the UK, Belgium, Italy, Israel and Hong Kong. Suspected cases are also being looked at in France, the Netherlands and Germany.
So far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not identified any omicron cases in the US.
Last week, WHO officials declared omicron a ‘variant of concern’ – its highest classification – because the virus is exhibiting dozens of new mutations which may make it more transmissible and more difficult for the body’s immune system to control.
Early indications from South Africa are encouraging, as the New York Times reports that hospitals there are not being overloaded cases of the new variant, and patients that have it were individuals not fully immunized. In addition, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, who chairs the South African Medical Association told reporters that most patients she had seen did not lose their sense of taste and smell, and had only a slight cough, she told reporters.
However, the changes in the virus are significant, leading Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, to state in a Twitter post, “It has a large number of mutations and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics.”
In a statement, the UK’s Health Security Agency said, “These are potentially biologically significant mutations which may change the behavior of the virus with regards to vaccines, treatments and transmissibility,” adding that “more investigation is required.”
Multiple studies are under way in South Africa and other countries to learn more about the characteristics of infections produced by the omicron variant. According to the WHO, it is likely to take weeks to understand omicron’s impact and to determine how effective current COVID-19 vaccines are against it.
In the meantime, officials will be monitoring any significant rise in hospitalizations over the next week or two which would signal a spike in severe illness caused by the variant.