STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. (TNS) — The mutations and behaviors of the newly-identified variant of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is concerning enough that the World Health Organization (WHO) has given it an official name.
Identified as the B.1.1.529 variant, now officially named the omicron variant by the WHO, it was first identified in South Africa on Nov. 23 from a specimen collected on Nov. 9, and has since been identified in Hong Kong, Belgium, Botswana and Israel.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, said there’s no indication the omicron variant has reached the United States.
The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), an independent group of experts, held a panel on Friday to determine if the variant was of concern.
“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 TAG-VE’s report reads.
WHAT IS A VARIANT OF CONCERN?
A variant of concern (VOC) is a variant that has been demonstrated to increase the transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-10 epidemiology; or increase in clinical disease presentation; or decrease the effectiveness of public health and social measures and vaccines, according to the WHO.
One thing that is currently helping to differentiate this variant from others is called the S gene dropout or S gene target failure, which is not detected on one “widely used” PCR test.
Fifty-nine cases of omicron have been identified so far.
Omicron has at least 30 different mutations, twice as many as the delta variant, which was responsible for a wave of new infections in the United States and is said to have double the risk for hospitalization compared to the strain of the virus that launched the pandemic.
“Right now, researchers are getting together to understand where these mutations are in the spike protein and the furin cleavage site, and what that potentially may mean for our diagnostics or therapeutics and our vaccines,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, technical COVID-19 lead for WHO.
“There’s a lot of work that is ongoing in South Africa and in other countries to better characterize the variant itself in terms of transmissibility, in terms of severity and any impact on our countermeasures, like the use of diagnostics, therapeutics or vaccines,” Van Kerkhove said. “So far there’s little information, but those studies are underway.”
HOCHUL SAYS STATE IS CHECKING VIRUS SAMPLES
Gov. Kathy Hochul issued a statement Friday saying the state Department of Health is actively monitoring virus samples collected in New York state.
“While we have not yet identified any omicron cases, we are not surprised that new variants are emerging and may likely end up in New York. We will continue to monitor WHO actions and work with our partners at the CDC to keep a close eye on developments,” Hochul said.
“I want to remind New Yorkers to continue taking the precautionary steps we know reduce the spread of this deadly virus: wear a mask in indoor public places, use proper hand hygiene, get tested, and stay home when sick. The vaccine also remains one of our greatest weapons in fighting the pandemic, and this news further emphasizes the need for each of us to get vaccinated and get the booster if you’re fully vaccinated,” she continued.
ARE THERE TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS?
Taking advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Fauci, President Joe Biden said he will be restricting travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi beginning Monday, CNN reported.
This restriction doesn’t apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents.
The United Kingdom has already said it would ban flights from several African countries, including South Africa, beginning Friday and many other countries have imposed travel bans and restrictions as the news about omicron broke on Friday.
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