The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated the new variant of COVID-19, first identified in South Africa, a variant of concern (VOC) and given it the name Omicron. Preliminary evidence suggests it carries a higher risk of reinfection than other variants.
It was initially linked to Gauteng, South Africa’s smallest province. However, the variant did not necessarily originate there. In fact, the earliest sample showing the variant was collected in Botswana on November 11.
The WHO said the variant — originally referred to as B.1.1.529. — “has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning”.
South African scientist Tulio de Oliveira said at a media briefing the Omicron variant contains a collection of around 50 mutations.
More than 30 of these, he emphasised, are in the spike protein, the region that interacts with human cells upon entry.
The part of the virus that first makes contact with our cells has 10 mutations, far more than just two for the Delta variant, which due to its fast spread became the dominant strain worldwide earlier this year.
The high level of mutation suggests the variant comes from a single patient who could not clear the virus, thus giving it the chance to genetically evolve.
In South Africa, cases surged from 273 on November 16 to more than 1,200 by the start of this week.
Omicron, which has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, joins a list of other four VOCs – Delta, Alpha, Beta and Gamma.
Delta, first identified in India, is currently the most common type circulating in the UK.
Unsurprisingly, shares in airlines, tourism operators and hotel groups dropped sharply.
Banks, fuel suppliers and mining groups were hit badly too, and the price of oil fell by more than $9 a barrel to levels last seen in mid-September.
The new variant has also raised fears for the need to impose tighter restrictions as the European Centre for Disease Control (CDC) has dubbed the level of risk associated with it “very high”.
Officials said it is extremely likely Omicron will spread across the EU.
The agency warned the profile of the variant may reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and people’s natural immunity.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa on Friday afternoon.
A Downing Street spokesman said the two leaders “discussed the challenges posed globally by the new COVID-19 variant and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel”.
He added Mr Johnson praised South Africa’s “leadership in transparently sharing scientific data”.
The two agreed to “stay in close contact” as they continue to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.