While scientists say there is reason to be concerned about the variant, they point out that there is still a lot we don’t know, including whether the variant is indeed more contagious, if it causes more serious illness or what effect it may have on the effectiveness of the vaccine. to be.
“While this is concerning, as the WHO has indicated, I think we need to take a step back and wait for science on this,” epidemiologist Dr Abdul El-Sayed told CNN.
Here’s what we know about Omicron.
Where he was identified
The variant has so far been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Belgium.
A sample of the first known case of the variant in South Africa was collected on November 9, the WHO said on Friday. Now, the number of variant cases appears to be increasing in almost every province in the country, the WHO said. South Africa has currently fully vaccinated less than 36% of its adult population and its rate of new vaccinations has declined in recent days, according to the country’s health department.
South African officials also initially said there was a confirmed case in a traveler from South Africa to Hong Kong. Hong Kong health officials on Friday identified a second case of the variant among travelers returning to the same floor of a designated quarantine hotel. Health officials have ordered at least 12 people in adjoining rooms to undergo a mandatory Covid-19 test and two weeks of quarantine at a government center.
Also on Friday, the Belgian government said an individual who had recently traveled from Egypt and was not vaccinated, tested positive for the variant, marking the first case in Europe.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said on Friday, given the “potential for immune evasion and the potentially increased transmissibility advantage over Delta,” that there is a “high to very high” risk. that it spreads in Europe.
Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN on Friday that “there is no indication” that the variant is currently in the United States, saying “it seems to have been restricted “, but anything is possible.
His changes worry
Scientists are concerned that these mutations may make the variant more transmissible and may lead to an immune breakout.
Fauci told CNN on Friday that scientists were working to find out if the variant could evade immunity, saying its mutations could help suggest or predict if that would be the case.
“What you have to do is you have to get this particular sequence of the virus, put it in a form in the lab where you can actually test the different antibodies, so that you can have a prediction that it might escape, or you can actually prove it, âhe said.
“Right now you’re kind of talking about a red flag indicating that this could be a problem, but we don’t know,” Fauci added. “Once you test it, you will know for sure whether or not it escapes the antibodies we make, for example against the virus through a vaccine orâ¦ after being infected.”
Dr Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, said he did not believe the variant would create a situation where “vaccines would be made unnecessary.”
“I think it’s extremely unlikely,” he said. “The question is, is there a small blow to the effectiveness of the vaccine, or is there a big blow? I think we’ll probably get some preliminary data in the next few days.”
How it compares with other variants
While mutations – and new variants – of the virus are expected as it continues to spread, experts say there is more reason to be concerned with Omicron.
âWe’ve seen a lot of variations pop up over the past five or six months, and most of them haven’t meant much. It looks different,â Jha said. “It acts differently, it looks like it’s a lot more contagious than even the Delta variant.”
When experts looked at other variants, Jha said, it usually took several months for these strains to become dominant – in other words, the most common strain of the virus spreading in an area.
âThis one became dominant very quickly in South Africa in the areas where it was found. Within days to weeks instead of months,â Jha said. âNow the number of cases in South Africa is quite low, so that could also be for other reasons, not just because it’s more transmissible. But the speed at which it took off is really unlike anything else. that we’ve seen before. “
WHO officials also said in their statement Friday that preliminary evidence suggests that Omicron also poses a higher risk of reinfection, compared to other variants of concern.
What vaccine makers are saying
In a press release on Friday, Moderna said it was working quickly to test its vaccine’s ability to neutralize the variant and that data is expected in the coming weeks.
The strain includes mutations “seen in the Delta variant which are believed to increase transmissibility and mutations seen in the Beta and Delta variants which are believed to promote immune evasion,” Moderna said. “The combination of mutations represents an important potential risk to accelerate the decline of natural and vaccine-induced immunity.”
If its current vaccine and booster are insufficient against the variant, one possible solution is to stimulate people with a larger dose, which Moderna said is testing. The company is also evaluating two multivalent booster candidates to see if they provide better protection against Omicron, both of which include some of the viral mutations present in the variant.
Moderna said he is also testing a booster specific to Omicron.
“For several days, we have been moving as quickly as possible to execute our strategy to fight this variant,” Moderna CEO StÃ©phane Bancel said in the statement.
AstraZeneca also said it is seeking to understand the impact of Omicron on its vaccine, which is currently not authorized for use in the United States.
“AstraZeneca is also already conducting research in places where the variant has been identified, namely in Botswana and Eswatini, which will allow us to collect actual data from Vaxzevria against this new variant of the virus,” a spokesperson said on Friday. of the society.
The company also said it is testing its antibody treatment, AZD7442, against the variant. AstraZeneca asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in October to authorize emergency use of the treatment.
Scientists at BioNTech, the German company that has partnered with Pfizer to make its Covid-19 vaccine, are also studying the impact of the variant on their shot, with data expected in the next two weeks.
A spokesperson for Johnson & Johnson told CNN in a statement that the company is also testing the effectiveness of its vaccine against Omicron.
He triggered new travel measures
President Joe Biden has said he will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries from Monday as a precaution. Officials told CNN that the United States travel restrictions would give the federal government some time to investigate the variant, but added that it was considered inevitable that the strain would eventually appear in the United States.
European Union states have also agreed to introduce temporary restrictions on all travel to the EU from southern Africa for fear of the variant, the bloc said on Friday. The countries concerned are Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, said European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer.
Canada “will prohibit the entry of foreign nationals (…) who have traveled to southern Africa during the last 14 days,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said on Friday.
And Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced sweeping travel restrictions covering most of Africa, saying on Friday: “We are on the verge of a state of emergency.”
CNN’s Virginia Langmaid, Sharon Braithwaite, Michael Nedelman, Frederik Pleitgen, Kaitlan Collins, Jonny Hallam and Naomi Thomas contributed to this report.