Risks linked to the new Omicron coronavirus variant are “high” and require “timely” policy intervention, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) warned in a threat assessment published late Friday.
The B.1.1.529 strain, first detected in South Africa, was dubbed Omicron and classified as a “variant of concern” on Friday by the World Health Organisation.
“Based on currently available genetic information, the risks of this [variant of concern] are high, according to preliminary data,” the ECDC assessment states.
Omicron “is the most divergent variant that has been detected in significant numbers during the pandemic to date, raising serious concerns that it may significantly reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and increase the risk of reinfections,” the ECDC cautioned.
“Due to the uncertainties involved with this situation, the timely reinforced implementation of non-pharmaceutical interventions is now more important than ever,” it added.
Europe’s first known case of the variant was detected in Belgium on Friday, just as the European Union agreed on a travel ban from seven southern African countries. The United Kingdom has moved to do the same and the United States will implement a travel ban from the region starting Monday.
Health authorities in the Netherlands said 61 people tested positive for COVID-19 out of 600 passengers on two flights from South Africa that landed at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport Friday, Dutch media reported. It is not yet known if they are infected with the novel variant.
An official from the German state of Hesse said the new variant had “very likely” arrived in Germany. “Several mutations typical of Omicron were found last night on a passenger returning from South Africa,” Kai Klose, state minister for social affairs, wrote on Twitter. “There is a high level of suspicion.”
“There is still considerable uncertainty related to the transmissibility, vaccine effectiveness, risk for reinfections and other properties of this variant. At this stage, based on our experience with previous variants we must be proactive and implement measures as a precaution to buy time until we gain more knowledge,” Andrea Ammon, ECDC’s Director, said.
The emergence of the new variant in Africa underscores the need to speed up global vaccine distribution, said Seth Berkley, CEO of Gavi, which oversees daily operations for the COVAX project to promote worldwide vaccine access.
“While we still need to know more about Omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged,” he said. “We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world’s population.”