The latest COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa has been given the Greek name ‘Omicron’, and labeled as a variant of concern by UN health agency experts due to its large number of mutations and possible faster rate of infection.
According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), preliminary evidence also suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant of concern, as compared to other strains, such as Delta.
Currently the number of cases appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.
WHO explains that the variant has been detected at faster rates than in previous surges in infection, suggesting it “may have a growth advantage”.
The experts have asked countries to enhance surveillance and genome sequencing efforts to better understand the variant.
There are also a number of studies underway and the agency’s technical advisory group, known by the acronym TAG-VE, will continue to evaluate this variant. WHO will communicate new findings to Member States and to the public as needed.
Information is still limited
On Wednesday, WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, said the information about the now ‘Omicron’ variant is still limited.
“There are fewer than 100 whole genome sequences that are available, 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”, she said during a Q&A on Twitter.
Dr. Van Kerkhove explained that researchers are currently trying to determine where the mutations are and what they potentially mean for diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.
“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has, there’s a lot of work that is underway”, she added.
The WHO officials reminded previous advice: people can do a lot to protect themselves from COVID, including by continuing to wear masks and avoiding crowds.
“Everybody that’s out there needs to understand that the more this virus circulates the more opportunities the virus has to change, the more mutations we will see”, said Dr. Van Kerkhove.
“Get vaccinated when you can, make sure you receive the full course of your doses and make sure you take steps to reduce your exposure and prevent yourself from passing that virus to someone else”, she added.