The heavily mutated coronavirus strain linked to a sharp rise in cases in South Africa was designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, as more countries moved to tighten curbs on travel from the affected region.
The strain would be given the name “Omicron”, the WHO said after an emergency meeting on Friday, when its experts examined data from South Africa that appeared to show exponential growth in cases of the B.1.1.529 Sars-Cov-2 variant.
Earlier, a host of countries including the UK and Israel, as well as EU member states, imposed travel restrictions on a group of southern African countries following mounting concern among scientists that the variant could evade vaccines and be transmitted faster than the dominant Delta variant.
Sajid Javid, UK health secretary, described the new variant as a “huge international concern”, telling the House of Commons: “Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, and current vaccines may be less effective against it.”
Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, warned that the variant “could spread around the world within a few months”, as the first case was confirmed in Europe. She urged Europeans to get vaccinated, including having third booster shots.
Belgium’s health minister, Frank Vandenbroucke, confirmed the first EU case in samples taken from a traveller from Egypt. A confirmed case, in a returnee from Malawi, and two suspected cases were also detected in Israel, which also moved quickly to shut down nearly all travel to and from most of Africa.
Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister, warned that the country was on the “threshold of a national emergency”, as it dispatched soldiers to take travellers recently returned from the affected countries into quarantine.
Hong Kong said it had recorded two cases of the variant following genome sequencing analysis, including in a traveller who arrived from South Africa.
In the US Anthony Fauci, Joe Biden’s chief medical officer, said Washington was “rushing” to obtain more scientific data on the new strain but that more information was needed before a decision on whether to stop flights from South Africa.
Fauci said the option of halting flights was “on the table”, but added: “You don’t want to say you’re going to do it until you have some scientific reason to do it.”
US scientists would speak with South African scientists later on Friday, Fauci said, speaking to CNN.
The countries affected by the UK travel ban are South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini. Returnees from those countries will have to quarantine for 10 days at a government facility.
South Africa on Friday accused the UK, which made its move on Thursday evening, of rushing to ban travel before the variant had been properly assessed.
“Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The variant has a highly unusual 50 mutations, including 32 in the spike receptor, suggesting it could evade the immune protection provided by the vaccines and spread faster than Delta, though no definitive data are yet available.
The WHO’s decision on Friday skipped the usual intermediate stage of labelling the new variant a “variant of interest”.
“B.1.1.529 is being designated as a variant of concern and we called it omicron,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead.
Experts at Friday’s WHO meeting debated whether to wait “a few days” before giving the variant the highest designation of concern, according to one person familiar with what was said. This was rejected because the “wait-and-see” approach had been one of the main issues with the pandemic response. The world was “always reacting too late”, the person said.
Additional reporting by Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv, Andy Bounds in Brussels, Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London and Aime Williams in Washington