After the discovery of a new coronavirus variant, called B.1.1.529, the World Health Organization scheduled an emergency meeting on Friday.
The variant, which has been named “Omicron”, appears to have a high number of mutations. This will affect how it behaves and spreads to people.
We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19
B.1.1.529 was detected earlier this week in South Africa, where a team of scientists from seven universities is working to learn more about it. Earlier this month, the variant was identified in Botswana.
Hong Kong and Israel both announced their first case of the new variant this week. “We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency. Our main principle is to act fast, strong and now,” said Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
According to a virologist in Belgium, the first case in Europe has also been detected.
Scientists say the high number of mutations could mean the variant is more transmissible and immune response could be affected.
The UK Health Security Agency reported that B.1.1.529 has a spike protein that is very different to the original strain, raising concern about vaccine effectiveness.
Many areas have already started restricting travel over concern for “Omicron”.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights “should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.
The U.K. and Israel have also announced travel restrictions and the U.K. has banned flights from South Africa.
Scientists from the United States are set to talk with South African scientists Friday to learn more about the variant and how it affects antibodies. Dr. Fauci said “We want to find out, scientists to scientists, exactly what is going on”.
“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 it’s a bit more widespread in South Africa than was originally felt a couple of days ago,” he added.