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Omicron prompts global action

A new variant of concern discovered in southern Africa is quickly spreading around the world, prompting government to take action

Covid vaccine

Events are moving quickly after the discovery last week of a new, potentially more infectious variant of SARS-CoV-2, B.1.1.529, now labelled Omicron by the World Health Organization (WHO).

A range of countries reacted with travel bans to the affected areas of southern Africa, including South Africa and Botswana, in an effort to limit its spread. However, cases of Omicron have now been reported in several countries in Europe and Asia, as well as in North America.

In the Netherlands, 61 passengers out of 600 arriving from the region on Friday tested positive for the virus, 13 of whom are known to have the Omicron variant. Police were called in to track down two COVID-19-positive passengers who escaped from a quarantine hotel, arresting them on planes destined for other European cities.

The WHO has warned that travel bans should only be used as part of a ‘risk-based and scientific approach’, while South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has asked for the travel bans to be lifted. However, there is little sign that other countries are heeding this advice. In fact, Japan has taken even stronger action, banning all foreigners from entering the country from 30 November.

Fuelling the emergency measures is the fear that the new variant will ‘escape’ the COVID-19 vaccines due to the wide range of mutations in the new variant. Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, called the “unusual constellation of mutations” a “big jump” for the virus, pointing to the fact that 30 of the 50 new mutations are on the all-important spike protein, the target of most vaccines.

Professor Francois Balloux, director of University College London’s Genetics Institute, has suggested that the variant may have emerged in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient. The prevalence of HIV in South Africa is the highest in the world, affecting 13.1% of the population and accounting for a quarter of all deaths.

“I would definitely expect it to be poorly recognised by neutralising antibodies relative to Alpha or Delta. It is difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at this stage,” said Professor Balloux.

“We’re flying at warp speed,” said Penny Moore, a virologist at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, whose team is working to understand whether Omicron can evade immunity, either from vaccines or previous infection.

Vaccine maker BioNTech said: “We understand the concern of experts and have immediately initiated investigations on variant B.1.1.529. We expect more data from the laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest. These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally.”

Earlier this year, Pfizer and BioNTech announced that they had made the necessary preparations to adapt their mRNA vaccine to an ‘escape’ variant within six weeks and would be ready to vaccinate people within 100 days.

Article by
Hugh Gosling

29th November 2021

From: Healthcare

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