Asian Reporter web extra, November 26, 2021
Explainer: What is this new COVID variant in
By Maria Cheng
The Associated Press
LONDON (AP) — WHAT IS THIS NEW COVID-19 VARIANT IN SOUTH
South African scientists identified a new version of the
coronavirus this week that they say is behind a recent spike in
COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous
province. It’s unclear where the new variant actually arose, but
it was first detected by scientists in South Africa and has now
been seen in travellers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong, and
Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an
"exponential rise" of cases in the last few days, although
experts are still trying to determine if the new variant is
From just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent
weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to
2,465 on Thursday. Struggling to explain the sudden rise in
cases, scientists studied virus samples from the outbreak and
discovered the new variant.
In a statement on Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO)
designated it as a "variant of concern," naming it "Omicron"
after a letter in the Greek alphabet.
After convening a group of experts to assess the data, the
U.N. health agency said that "preliminary evidence suggests an
increased risk of reinfection with this variant," as compared to
"The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing
in almost all provinces in South Africa," WHO said.
WHY ARE SCIENTISTS WORRIED ABOUT THIS NEW
It appears to have a high number of mutations — about 30 — in
the coronavirus’ spike protein, which could affect how easily it
spreads to people.
Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in
Britain at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far
suggest the new variant has mutations "consistent with enhanced
transmissibility," but said that "the significance of many of
the mutations is still not known."
Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick,
described omicron as "the most heavily mutated version of the
virus we have seen," including potentially worrying changes
never before seen all in the same virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S.′ top infectious diseases doctor,
said American officials had arranged a call with their South
African counterparts later on Friday to find out more details
and said there was no indication the variant had yet arrived in
WHAT’S KNOWN AND NOT KNOWN ABOUT THE VARIANT?
Scientists know that omicron is genetically distinct from
previous variants including the beta and delta variants, but do
not know if these genetic changes make it any more transmissible
or dangerous. So far, there is no indication the variant causes
more severe disease.
It will likely take weeks to sort out if omicron is more
infectious and if vaccines are still effective against it.
Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at
Imperial College London said it was "extremely unlikely" that
current vaccines wouldn’t work, noting they are effective
against numerous other variants.
Even though some of the genetic changes in omicron appear
worrying, it’s still unclear if they will pose a public health
threat. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially
alarmed scientists but didn’t end up spreading very far.
"We don’t know if this new variant could get a toehold in
regions where delta is," said Peacock of the University of
Cambridge. "The jury is out on how well this variant will do
where there are other variants circulating." To date, delta is
by far the most predominant form of COVID-19, accounting for
more than 99% of sequences submitted to the world’s biggest
HOW DID THIS NEW VARIANT ARISE?
The coronavirus mutates as it spreads and many new variants,
including those with worrying genetic changes, often just die
out. Scientists monitor COVID-19 sequences for mutations that
could make the disease more transmissible or deadly, but they
cannot determine that simply by looking at the virus.
Peacock said the variant "may have evolved in someone who was
infected but could then not clear the virus, giving the virus
the chance to genetically evolve," in a scenario similar to how
experts think the alpha variant — which was first identified in
England — also emerged, by mutating in an immune-compromised
ARE THE TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS BEING IMPOSED BY
SOME COUNTRIES JUSTIFIED?
Maybe. As of noon Friday, travellers arriving in the U.K.
from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, and
Zimbabwe will have to self-isolate for 10 days. European Union
nations also moved quickly on Friday to ban air travel from
southern Africa, and the U.S. also said it would ban travel from
South Africa and seven other African nations by non-U.S.
citizens beginning Monday.
Given the recent rapid rise in COVID-19 in South Africa,
restricting travel from the region is "prudent" and would buy
authorities more time, said Neil Ferguson, an infectious
diseases expert at Imperial College London.
Jeffrey Barrett, director of COVID-19 Genetics at the
Wellcome Sanger Institute, thought that the early detection of
the new variant could mean restrictions taken now would have a
bigger impact than when the delta variant first emerged
"With delta, it took many, many weeks into India’s terrible
wave before it became clear what was going on and delta had
already seeded itself in many places in the world and it was too
late to do anything about it," he said. "We may be at an earlier
point with this new variant so there may still be time to do
something about it."