WHO terms new COVID-19 variant as ‘Omicron’: ‘Variant of concern’ prompts global flight bans, forces WTO to defer meet

The global health agency said evidence on Omicron showed an increased risk of reinfection compared to other variants, indicating that people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be more subject to catching it again

The World Health Organisation on Friday declared the recently-discovered B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 , first detected in southern Africa, to be a variant of concern and renamed it Omicron.

The United Nations health agency also said early evidence on the variant, until now known by the technical term B.1.1.529, has shown an increased risk of reinfection compared to other highly transmissible variants, indicating that people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be more subject to catching it again with Omicron.

The WHO suggested that the variant could pose greater risks than the Delta variant, which was first detected in India and has been causing ravages worldwide.

Health officials are unsure where Omicron actually arose, but has now been seen in travellers from southern Africa to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

Variants of concern, which include Alpha, Beta and Delta, have shown to spread more easily, cause more serious disease, or dent the effectiveness of vaccines and other COVID-fighting tools. They’re more worrying than the so-called variants of interest — like Mu and Lambda — that have affected aspects like transmissibility and severity of the disease but aren’t as transmissible.

“We understand that people are concerned,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19 , in a video statement provided by the agency. “The good thing is that we have a monitoring system around the world to detect these variants.”

She noted that Omicron has a large number of mutations, and has said it will take weeks before scientists can assess its possible effect on vaccines, for example.

Flight bans

The world quickly reacted to the new variant of the infection, with many countries announcing flight bans to African nations.

The United States, Brazil, Canada, and Saudi Arabia became the latest countries Friday to restrict travel from southern Africa.

Earlier, Britain, Germany, Italy and Singapore had already announced that it was restricting travel to seven nations — South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia or Eswatini.

“It seems to spread rapidly,” US President Joe Biden said of the new variant. In announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.” The US measures will come into play from Monday.

Austria, the Czech Republic, Cyprus and the Netherlands also suspended flights from southern Africa.

Japan said it will require a 10-day quarantine period for travellers from the area.

Australia has also announced that it will close its borders to anyone who has been in southern Africa, and is not an Australian citizen, in response to the emergence of the Omicron COVID-19 variant. Announcing the measures, Health Minister Greg Hunt said that Australian citizens and residents and their dependents arriving from these countries will need to go into immediate supervised quarantine for 14 days.

Further, anyone who has already arrived in Australia and who has been in any of the nine listed southern African countries within the past 14 days must immediately isolate themselves and be tested for COVID-19 and follow jurisdictional quarantine requirements.

The country said it will also suspend all flights from nine southern African countries for a period of 14 days as a matter of precaution.

The flight ban led to chaotic scenes at the Johannesburg international airport with desperate people trying to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had just shut their doors to South Africa.

UK citizen Toby Reid, a 24-year-old trader in London, was camping on Cape Town’s Table Mountain with his girlfriend when the ban was announced.

“About 5:30 am we got up to see if we could catch the sunrise, and at six in the morning we found out that there was still a possibility to get back,” he told AFP, standing in line for check-in at the Johannesburg airport just hours later.

The couple managed to grab the two last seats on an evening flight to Frankfurt.

South Africa’s health ministry on Friday attacked the decision to impose travel bans to slow the spread of Omicron as “draconian,” unscientific and contrary to WHO advice.

“We believe that some of the reactions have been unjustified,” Health Minister Joe Phaahla told a news conference, accusing some leaders whom he did not name of seeking a “scapegoat.”

Phaala said that bans were “a wrong approach — it’s misdirected and goes against the norms and advice by the WHO”.

“We feel some of the leadership of countries are finding scapegoats to deal with what is a worldwide problem,” he said.

So, as while countries scrambled to introduce measures to save its citizens from the new variant, Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, said that while flight restrictions would help countries buy more time to speed up vaccination and introduce other measures, like masking and social distancing, they are highly unlikely to prevent the entry of new variants.

Vaccine against Omicron

United States pharmaceutical giant Moderna said on Friday it will develop a booster shot against the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus .

It is one of three strategies the company is working to address the new threat, including a higher dose of its existing vaccine, Moderna said.

“The mutations in the Omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant,” said Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel.

Pfizer and BioNTech said they are investigating Omicron and can adapt their vaccine quickly if needed. The companies said they expect more data from lab tests in two weeks at the latest.

Johnson & Johnson on Friday said they were already testing their vaccine against Omicron. “We are closely monitoring newly emerging COVID-19 virus strains with variations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and are already testing the effectiveness of our vaccine against the new and rapidly spreading variant first detected in southern Africa,” J&J said.

Novovax also announced that it’s working on a vaccine to protect people from the new strain.

WTO meet deferred

The new strain of the virus has also led to the pushing back of the World Trade Organization ministerial conference. The global trade body’s biggest gathering in four years, scheduled to begin on Tuesday in Geneva, has been pushed back.

The MC12 conference at WTO headquarters in Geneva was set to take up key issues like a long-awaited agreement on subsidies for fisheries, seen as a major way to prevent overfishing in the world’s seas, and an effort to waive patent and other intellectual property protections linked to COVID-19 vaccines.

“This has not been an easy recommendation to make… But as Director-General, my priority is the health and safety of all MC12 participants – ministers, delegates and civil society. It is better to err on the side of caution,” WTO Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala Okonjo-Iweala said in a statement.

This marks the second time the pandemic has forced a postponement of the 12th Ministerial Conference. The meeting was originally due to take place in June 2020 in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.

With inputs from agencies

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