Representative image | Photo: AFP
Brussels: The discovery of a new coronavirus variant sent a chill through much of the world as nations raced to halt air travel, markets fell sharply and scientists held emergency meetings to weigh the exact risks, which were largely unknown.
A World Health Organization panel named the variant “omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the delta variant. The WHO suggested omicron could pose greater risks than delta, which is the world's most prevalent variant and has fuelled relentless waves of infection on every continent.
Early evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again.
In response, the United States and Canada joined the European Union and several other countries in instituting travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa, where the variant brought on a fresh surge of infections and is thought to have originated.
The White House said the US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday. It did not give immediate details except to say the restrictions will not apply to returning US citizens or permanent residents, who will continue to be required to test negative before their travel.
Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was better understood. But a jittery world feared the worst nearly two years after COVID-19 emerged and triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe.
“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.
Omicron has now been seen in travellers to Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel as well as in southern Africa.
There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said. The WHO panel drew from the Greek alphabet in naming the variant omicron, as it has done with earlier, major variants of the virus.
Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear how much of a public health threat it posed. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.
The 27-nation European Union suspended air travel from southern Africa, and stocks tumbled in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 1,000 points before an afternoon uptick. The S&P 500 index was down 2.3 per cent, on pace for its worst day since February. The price of oil plunged nearly 12 per cent.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. The member nations of the EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”
She warned that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months."
Belgium became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant.
“It's a suspicious variant," Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said. “We don't know if it's a very dangerous variant.”
It has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US government's top infectious disease expert. Abroad, the variant “seems to be spreading at a reasonably rapid rate,” he told CNN. And although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, "we don't know that for sure right now.”
President Joe Biden said the new variant “should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations." He called anew for unvaccinated Americans to get their widely available doses and for governments to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines so they can be more rapidly manufactured around the world.
Showing how complicated the spread of a variant can be, the Belgian case involved a traveller who returned to Belgium from Egypt on November 11 but did not became sick with mild symptoms until Monday, according to professor Marc Van Ranst, who works for the scientific group overseeing the Belgian government's COVID-19 response.
Israel, one of the world's most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it also detected its first case of the new variant in a traveller who returned from Malawi. The traveller and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were looking into the travellers' exact vaccination status.
After a 10-hour overnight trip, passengers aboard KLM Flight 598 from Capetown, South Africa, to Amsterdam were held on the edge of the runway Friday morning at Schiphol airport for four hours pending special testing. Passengers aboard a flight from Johannesburg were also being isolated and tested.