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Here’s What We Know About the Omicron COVID Variant

omnicron-variant

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Governments around the world are reacting to the new COVID-19 variant detected in South Africa. The discovery of the variant, called Omicron by the World Health Organization, has captured the headlines of media outlets around the world. Like almost all things with the COVID-19 virus there is some limited information about the variant, however, here’s what is known to this date.

What is the Omicron Variant?

The Omicron variant was first detected in Botswana earlier this month, and then was recently identified in South Africa and was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) on November 24. According to the information available to date, the variant has a total of 32 mutations in its spike protein, a number that is higher than the nine mutations in the Delta variant.

The spike protein is the main target of the authorized COVID vaccines, which has awakened some concerns about the ability of this new variant to resist the immunity created by the vaccines. However, there is yet no conclusive evidence regarding Omicron’s ability to bypass immunity. Currently, 59% of the total American population is fully vaccinated, and 86% of people over 65 years (who are more vulnerable to the virus) have received the two shots of the vaccine.

There are still no confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the United States (EFE)

The WHO named the variant as a “variant of concern” on November 26, meaning that there is evidence showing that the new strain is more transmissible, more virulent, and decreases effectiveness on some public health measures.

Although there are raising concerns among public health officials, there is also some early good news. According to the South Africa’s health minister, the majority of hospitalizations at the moment are unvaccinated, showing some early signs of the effectiveness of vaccines on the new variant. Furthermore, the chief of the South African Medical Association said that most of the cases have shown mild symptoms and there is no significant uptake in hospital admissions at the moment.

Where is the variant spreading?

Currently, the variant has been detected in Botswana, South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium. As of November 26, 2021, there are 77 confirmed cases in South Africa, 6 cases in Botswana, 2 cases in Hong Kong, and one confirmed case in Israel and Belgium.

According to epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, the Belgium case was an unvaccinated woman who traveled to Egypt via Turkey and who developed flu-like symptoms after her travel. She had no links to South African, implying that the variant has already been circulating in some communities. This theory appears to be confirmed, as Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom have all reported confirmed cases of the Omicron variant this weekend.

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Scientists still do not know if the variant is resistant to the vaccines (Image: EFE)

Why is it called the Omicron Variant?

Variants are named based on the Greek alphabet, which is where the name Delta came from. Based on the regular order, the next two letters of the alphabet that should be used would be “nu” or “Xi”, not Omicron. However, the WHO decided to deliberately skip both of those letters, in order to avoid confusion with the word “new” in the former, and to “avoid stigmatizing a region” with the latter, a not-so-subtle reference to China’s leader.

How are governments responding?

President Joe Biden announced that the Federal government would be imposing air travel restrictions from South Africa and other seven countries (Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswaitini, Mozambique, and Malawi), this ban does not apply to U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Currently, there is no confirmed case of the Omicron variant in the United States. This announcement came just a few hours after Biden’s top medical advisor, Anthony Fauci, said that the government would wait for more data on vaccine efficacy before implementing travel bans.

The United Kingdom has also implemented a temporary travel ban to six African countries, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid saying that the new variant is a matter of international concern.  Similarly, the European Union and Canada have also implemented air restrictions to some African countries as a preventive measure.

Daniel is a Political Science and Economics student from the University of South Florida. He worked as a congressional intern to Rep. Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) from January to May 2020. He also is the head of international analysis at Politiks // Daniel es un estudiante de Cs Políticas y Economía en la Universidad del Sur de la Florida. Trabajo como pasante legislativo para el Representate Gus Bilirakis (FL-12) desde enero hasta mayo del 2020. Daniel también es el jefe de análisis internacional de Politiks.

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