On Nov. 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) gave COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529 a name, Omicron, and designated it a variant of concern as cases across Europe and South Africa have begun to rise. The choice to name and deem the variant as a concern came from WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) because of mutations in the strand. Points of concern are the transmissibility of Omicron and the severity of illness it causes.
Most of the currently known information about Omicron has come from labs in South Africa where they have been conducting studies and sharing their findings as tests are completed. Though there is no confirmation that Omicron is more transmissible or causes more severe illness, rising COVID-19 cases in South Africa are raising concerns.
Preliminary data from South Africa shows a rising rate of infection and hospitalization. It is unclear if the rise in hospitalization is because of the Omicron variant or because of the overall rise in the number of cases.
Preliminary evidence suggests that people who have had COVID-19 are more likely to be reinfected with Omicron compared to other variants of the virus – though more tests need to be completed to draw any conclusions. The WHO strongly recommends those who qualify for the vaccine to receive it immediately, as the vaccine helps to prevent major illness and death.
“How do we address Omicron? We’ve said it over and over again, and it deserves repeating, if you’re not vaccinated, get vaccinated. Get boosted if you are vaccinated. Continue to use the mitigation methods namely masks avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces,” said Dr. Fauci.
On Monday Nov. 29, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidelines; now, all individuals over 18 are encouraged to get a booster shot to help protect them from the Omicron variant.
Although there has not been a confirmed case of the mutated Omicron COVID-19 variant in the U.S., there have been reports of the variant circling Western Europe before South Africa identified and flagged the variant.
Some of the cases of COVID-19 with the Omicron variant in Europe were identified to be passengers on a flight returning from South Africa to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. Samples with the Omicron mutation date back to Nov. 19 and Nov. 23.
The European Union Public Health Body reported 44 Omicron COVID-19 cases across 10 countries across the region on Tuesday, Nov. 30. Cases have been confirmed in Austria, Germany, Portugal, Netherlands and other nations.
Canada also confirmed seven positive COVID-19 cases with the Omicron variant. At least four of these individuals were reported to have just returned from Nigeria.
The U.S. has controversially banned travel to eight South African countries. Critics of this ban are leaders of those nations who say President Joe Biden is punishing South Africa for being honest and transparent about the virus.
“Here’s what it does: It gives us time. Gives us time to take more actions to move quicker,” President Biden said. “It’s a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.”
More information about the Omicron variant and its effect on travel and health and safety practices is to come.