(NEW YORK) — Global health authorities said they’re monitoring a new COVID-19 variant first identified in Botswana, with the World Health Organization saying Friday the new strain, dubbed omicron, is a variant of concern.
Previously referred to as B.1.1.529, the WHO urged countries to step up monitoring and surveillance, citing the high number of mutations and early indications that the virus was spreading in South Africa. The global health agency said it’s still not clear whether the variant is more transmissible or causes more serious illness, or if it affects vaccines. And that such studies will take time.
Scientists have now confirmed 87 cases of the new variant — 77 in South Africa, six in Botswana, two in Hong Kong, and one each in Israel and Belgium, though hundreds more diagnoses are expected.
“We don’t know very much about this yet,” said WHO COVID-19 Technical Lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, speaking at an “Ask WHO” briefing Thursday. But concern about this variant stems from its “large number of mutations,” Kerkhove said, which could “have an impact on how the virus behaves.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN on Friday that scientists from the United States and South Africa will discuss the new variant on Friday, as early indications suggest it could be spreading in South Africa.
“Literally,” Fauci added, “it’s something that, in real time, we’re learning more and more about.”
Concerns about this variant already have prompted the U.K., EU and India to propose travel restrictions from South Africa. The World Health Organization, meanwhile, is urging calm, saying it’s premature to close borders.
There are thousands of COVID-19 variants, with new ones emerging all the time. Usually new variants disappear quickly because they’re overrun by a more dominant strain.
The now-dominant delta variant is so highly transmissible that most of the new variants that have cropped up in recent months have been unable to gain a foothold. In the United States, the delta variant comprises an estimated 99.9% of all cases.
“There’s obviously this tension between crying wolf and exacerbating concerns about the variants, but also being caught flat-footed and not responding swiftly enough,” said Dr. John Brownstein, chief innovation office at Boston Children’s Hospital and an ABC News Contributor. “This is where we have to cautiously respond without inciting panic, because this could easily turn out to be a variant similar to others that have never really panned out to be global concerns.”
Scientists across the globe constantly monitor all newly emerged variants to see if they’re spreading in a meaningful way, and global health authorities have said they’re monitoring this new variant closely.
Pfizer and partner BioNTech said they will conduct experiments to see if the new variant can chip away at vaccine efficacy. Vaccine experts said current COVID-19 vaccines, which rely on genetic technology, could be easily updated to better combat emerging variants — though so far, that hasn’t been necessary.
Eight variants are currently being monitored by the WHO, which designates particularly worrisome strains as variants of “interest” or “concern.” When they no longer pose a significant public health threat, the variants are reclassified — so far during the pandemic, 13 have been removed from the WHO’s list.
But public health experts said the emergence of variants underscores the urgent need to vaccinate everyone on the planet.
“It gives us a lens into why as epidemiologists we’ve been so concerned about global vaccine equity,” Brownstein added. “It’s a recognition that with not enough people around the globe immunized, it creates more opportunities for variants to emerge, and this is a very good example of that.”
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