A highly mutated COVID strain that it’s feared may be able to bypass some vaccine defences has been declared a ‘variant of concern’ and assigned the Greek letter Omicron.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) gave the B.1.1.529 strain, which has double the number of mutations as Delta, the top category of worrying variants.
It was first reported in South Africa and has been detected in Israel, Belgium, Hong Kong and Botswana.
Countries around the world have reacted with alarm to Omicron’s discovery and are shutting their borders, with the USA, Europe, Asia and the Middle East imposing travel restrictions.
Advisers to the WHO held a special meeting to flesh out information, although a top expert said its impact on vaccines may not be known for weeks.
Some of Omicron’s mutations are thought to increase its ability to bypass some protection from vaccines, making them less effective.
“We don’t know very much about this, yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19.
“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has on any potential vaccines, for example.”
The United Nations health agency said there appeared to be an “an increased risk of reinfection with this variant” compared to other variants.
Some previous variants, like the Beta variant, initially alarmed scientists but didn’t end up spreading very far.
- Related story: What we know so far of the Omicron variant
Countries have acted swiftly in response to the warnings coming from South Africa, where it was first detected, about the variant’s potential to spread fast.
Israel and Belgium have reported their first cases. Belgium was the first country in Europe to report a case and has introduced restrictions including mask-wearing.
In Israel, one traveller returning from Malawi tested positive and two others are suspected cases.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said his country was “currently on the verge of a state of emergency”.
UK Health Security Agency said it had also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong.
Countries to have introduced travel restrictions include the USA, Italy, Austria, France, Japan, The United Kingdom, Singapore, The Netherlands, Malta, Malaysia, Morocco, Philippines, Dubai and Jordan.
The UN’s World Tourism Organisation urged countries to act quickly on travel bans before the variant gets out of hand.
“My recommendation will be to take decisions today, not after one week, because if it continues to spread as we are expecting then it will be late and will make no sense to apply restrictions,” said the Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili.
However the WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan cautioned against hasty travel bans.
“It’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses here,” said Dr Ryan, praising South Africa’s public health institutions for picking up the new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19.
Australia’s Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Friday only one repatriation flight from South Africa had landed this week and he did not think the new strain would immediately impact plans to reopen.
“The world is looking and learning about the strain,” he told reporters.
“We’ve always been flexible, and if the medical advice is that we need to change, we won’t hesitate.”
Burnet Institute director Brendan Crabb told the ABC the most important thing wasn’t borders, but keeping up vaccine coverage and infection control measures.
About 86 per cent of Australians aged 16 and older are double-dosed.
Professor Crabb said this translated to between 72 and 73 per cent of the entire population. Just 1.5 per cent of the country have received a booster shot.
“We have to be serious about other interventions and that’s what I’m concerned about: masks, clean air, our test and trace system,” he said.
“These are things that are not onerous on our society. We need to keep them whether this new variant takes hold or not.
“We’re crazy to drop those ‘plus’ things in the vaccine-plus strategy that we’ve adopted so well.”
Meanwhile the news pummelled financial markets on Friday, with stocks suffering a sharp drop and oil plunging more than three per cent.