New COVID Variant Inspires CDC Meeting, Impacts European Travel: 'Most Worrying We've Seen'

Researchers in South Africa say they are studying whether the new variant, known as "omicron," causes more severe cases of the virus, or if it poses a threat to the effectiveness of vaccines

Coronavirus COVID-19. Photo: getty

A heavily mutated COVID-19 variant is confounding researchers in South Africa, where it has spread quickly in recent weeks after being first identified in Botswana. Since then, it has been identified in at least 81 samples collected in the country (and one in Hong Kong, in a traveler from South Africa), with scientists expressing concerns over its spike profile.

The strain — currently known as B.1.1.529 — contains more than 30 variations of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which is responsible for how the virus enters into host cells and spreads person-to-person.

Still, researchers say it's unclear whether or not the new variant is more transmissible than the Delta variant, which has greater potential to infect people. (The people at greatest risk from the Delta variant are the unvaccinated and every vaccine approved in the United States has shown efficacy against Delta.)

Richard Lessells, an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, told reporters at a Thursday press briefing, per Nature: "There's a lot we don't understand about this variant. The mutation profile gives us concern, but now we need to do the work to understand the significance of this variant and what it means for the response to the pandemic."

In the Thursday briefing, Lessells said researchers in South Africa are studying whether the new variant causes more severe cases of the virus, or if it poses a threat to the effectiveness of vaccines.

The World Health Organization panel met to assess the variant Friday, officially naming it "omicron" and classifying it as a highly transmissible virus of concern (the category that also includes the delta variant).

The B.1.1.529 variant is currently designated by the WHO as a variant "under monitoring."

Though it's still being studied, officials in many parts of the world are taking precautions against the new variant. Six African countries were added to England's travel "red list" this week and several other European Union nations are attempting to halt incoming travel from South Africa as a means of containing the spread of the new variant.

The Guardian reports that Dr. Susan Hopkins, the chief medical adviser to the UK Health Security Agency, said the new variant has a level of transmission not recorded since the beginning of the pandemic, calling it the "most worrying we've seen."

Speaking on CNN's New Day Friday, the U.S.' top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said that American and South African scientists would be discussing the variant in a call later in the day.

"We want to find out, scientist-to-scientist, exactly what is going on," Fauci said. "But it's something that has emerged in South Africa and seems to be spreading at a reasonably rapid rate in the sense of, when they do test positivity, they're seeing that it's a bit more widespread than was originally felt a couple days ago."

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