New Covid-19 Variant Causes Concern Globally, Found in U.S.

Omicron variant leads to travel restrictions, fears of new wave



Medical staff process a Covid-19 test earlier this year. Concerns have arisen globally over the past week as the Omicron variant has been recorded in at least 24 countries. (Courtesy photo)

The Omicron variant of Covid-19, which was designated a variant of concern by the WHO on November 26, has led to a slew of travel restrictions around the world, as well as renewed concern about a forthcoming wave of infections. Most travel bans are focused on countries in southern Africa, even as the variant was found to be in Europe prior to when South African scientists identified it.

As of now, cases of this variant have been detected in the United States (California), and in at least 23 other countries. The highest number of confirmed Omicron variant cases is in the province of Gauteng in South Africa, where at the moment almost all new cases are of this variant. Last Saturday, over 3,200 cases were reported, up from 300 two weeks prior. Daily cases in South Africa exceeded 26,000 during July, during the Delta variant-driven surge.

The Omicron variant is causing a high level of concern due to the number of mutations detected on the so-called “spike protein” of the virus, which is the protein that allows the virus to enter and affect human cells. 

The high number of mutations does not necessarily imply that this variant will lead to a major wave of infections or increased rates of hospitalization and death. But given where these mutations occur in the viral protein, and the significant number of them all clustered together, there is high concern that Omicron could develop quickly into the most serious variant since Delta earlier this year, which led to havoc in India and other nations around the world.

According to the WHO, many fundamental questions remain surrounding this new variant, including crucial data points such as its rate of transmissibility, its virulence, and whether or not it will evade protections from the current Covid-19 vaccines. Current tests are detecting the new variant.

The emergence of new variants was anticipated by scientists, responders, and policymakers, who were concerned that the rate of vaccination in lower-resource areas of the world has been far too slow, particularly when compared to wealthier areas. This has enabled the virus to spread more widely in those areas, allowing more opportunities for it to mutate.

South African epidemiologists have placed all states at the status of “increased local monitoring,” which in previous waves led to subsequently high peaks:

Previous Covid-19 infection rates in South African states (South African Covid19 Modeling Consortium)

The South African Covid19 Modeling Consortium has reported that each state in South Africa, except for Northern Cape, is seeing significant upward shifts in their forecast curve:

Covid-19 case modeling in South African states (South African Covid19 Modeling Consortium)

Currently, the only state in South Africa demonstrating an uptick in new hospitalizations is Gauteng:

Daily admission to hospitals in Gauteng. South Africa (South African Covid19 Modeling Consortium)

Beyond immediate concerns about infection and mortality rates for the new variant, another major concern in southern Africa is the impact of the travel restrictions. Reports are already coming in for instance that South African labs are running low on reagents for testing, and resupply is complicated by the lack of plane access to the country.

Direct Relief is continuing to monitor the latest reports and accept requests from global partners in their response to continuing Covid-19 pandemic.

Direct Relief has delivered over $3 billion in medical aid, including more than 6 million vaccines, during the Covid19 pandemic. For more information click here.

Additional reporting contributed by Noah Smith.

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