The World Health Organization on Friday formally designated a coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa as one “of concern” as the U.S., Europe and others rushed to ban flights from the affected region and stock markets took a dive from the bitter news.
The variant, dubbed “omicron,” was first detected in a sample collected Nov. 9, but a rising cluster of cases in Johannesburg, South Africa, and nearby nations prompted alarm because the variant has a number of mutations on its spike protein.
There are widespread fears the variant might not be reined in by drugs or vaccines, though scientists say they need to learn more in the days ahead.
“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other [variants of concern],” the WHO said Friday. “The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.”
Other countries are scrambling to sequence samples and see if the variant is spreading within their borders. Hong Kong detected two cases and Belgium reported one in a woman who traveled to Egypt via Turkey, making it the first in Europe.
There weren’t any known cases of the variant in the U.S. as of Friday but President Biden decided to ban flights, starting Monday, from South Africa and seven other nations in the region. The policy does not apply to American citizens and lawful residents who are returning from those nations, though they must present a negative test.
The WHO encouraged member nations to collect samples and, where possible, determine how the variant interacts with diagnostic tests, therapeutics and vaccines.
A number of countries are trying to buy time through travel bans. The U.K. barred flights from six countries.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 900 points, or 2.5%, on Friday — its worst day of 2021 — on fears of the economic aftershocks from yet another increase in COVID-19 cases and deaths. The S&P 500 lost nearly 2.3% and the Nasdaq Composite fell about 2.2%.
A White House official said President Biden, who is spending Thanksgiving weekend in Nantucket, has been briefed “on the new variant circulating in southern Africa.”
The European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said air travel from southern African countries should be suspended until “we have a clearer understanding about the danger posed by this new variant,” while Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health said travel restrictions were on the table and could be put forth after U.S. officials learn more.
South Africa objected to the U.K. ban as hasty, as WHO and foreign officials toggled between expressing alarm and thanking South Africa for being transparent about the variant and what its scientists know.
WHO officials and others urged countries to tread cautiously in how they issue travel bans — the virus may already be spreading within their borders, anyway, and snap actions could make countries less likely to come forward about future variants.
“The signal to the next country is if you identify a variant and share it with the global community you will be punished with a travel ban. I am not pro- or anti-travel bans, they can be useful in instances, but we should know that [it’s a] weak tool for fighting a global pandemic,” tweeted Ashish K. Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.
The coronavirus that’s bedeviled the world for two years first appeared in Wuhan, China, at the end of 2019.
An aggressive variant known as “beta” emerged in South Africa earlier in the pandemic and spread worldwide alongside a fast-moving variant first detected in the U.K.
Then, the delta variant first detected in India swept around the world and produced a major setback in the U.S. fight against the virus in late summer.
“We are concerned that this new variant may pose a substantial risk to public health. The variant has an unusually large number of mutations,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament. “Earlier indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it.”
Just under a quarter of South Africans are fully vaccinated compared to nearly 60% of the U.S. population and nearly 70% of the European Union.
Craig Spencer, an assistant professor in emergency medicine at Columbia University, said it is “worth noting that this is exactly what everyone calling for global vaccine equity has been screaming about.”
“Even as wealthy countries roll out expansive booster campaigns, many countries are still waiting for enough doses to give first shots,” he tweeted.
An unvaccinated population — anywhere in the world — gives the virus more chances to mutate and evolve. And policies in wealthy countries — including purchasing and stockpiling more doses than needed — have made it harder to get people vaccinated, especially those in sub-Saharan Africa.
Makers of approved COVID-19 vaccines said they will take stock of how protective their shots remain against the variant as quickly as they can. Pfizer and BioNTech said they expect data from lab tests within two weeks and can begin shipping an adapted version of the vaccine within 100 days if the variant eludes their shots’ protective power.
Moderna, the maker of another messenger-RNA vaccine, said it could move an omicron-specific vaccine into clinical testing within 60 to 90 days and that existing booster candidates might address some of the new mutations.
The Massachusetts company also is studying whether a full, 100-microgram booster might be more effective against the omicron variant than the currently approved booster, which is a half-dose at 50 micrograms.
J&J, another vaccine maker, said it is “closely monitoring newly emerging COVID-19 virus strains with variations in the [virus’s] spike protein and are already testing the effectiveness of our vaccine against the new and rapidly spreading variant first detected in southern Africa. We remain steadfast in the benefit the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine will provide to millions around the world.”
For more information, visit The Washington Times COVID-19 resource page.