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Journey of Omicron: From Botswana to Belgium, How New Covid Variant is Fast Jumping Continents

A sealed coffin containing the remains of a COVID-19 victim is stored in a refrigerated container in Johannesburg, South Africa. (AP Photo)

A sealed coffin containing the remains of a COVID-19 victim is stored in a refrigerated container in Johannesburg, South Africa. (AP Photo)

Amid discovery of Omicron variant, the WHO has asked countries to enhance sequencing efforts to better understand circulating Covid variants

A new variant of COVID-19 is fast jumping continents and is feared to have a high amount of spike mutations unseen before. The discovery of the B.1.1.529 Covid-19 variant, which the World Health Organisation named ‘Omicron’, has sent a chill through much of the world as nations raced to halt air travel, markets fell sharply and scientists held emergency meetings to weigh the exact risks that are largely unknown.

The Omicron variant is also reportedly affecting people in the under 25 age group. The variant, first reported to WHO from South Africa on Wednesday, has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. The WHO has asked countries to enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants, submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database.

On Thursday, the new B.1.1.529 variant was detected in South Africa, with the country’s health minister confirming that country has seen a steady spike in infections associated with it.

Regarding the affected group, South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla said: “They are at great risk,” Times Live reported. KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp) genome sequencer Professor Tulio de Oliveira said the new variant “is concerning for predicted immune-evasion and transmissibility”.

Countries Where the New B.1.1.529 Covid-19 Variant Has Been Detected

Botswana

Three infections have been detected in Botswana. The variant is also commonly being referred to as ‘Botswana’ variant and is reported to have significantly high number of mutations and thus has a serious public health implication for the country in view of the recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel.

South Africa

Confirmed cases is increasing quickly, particularly in Gauteng, North West and Limpopo. While Johannesburg and Tshwane were both considered hotspots for the previous waves, for now focus is on the capital. Areas such as Pretoria West, Atteridgeville, Centurion, Hatfield, and Soshanguve identified as a cause for concern.

Around 90 per cent of the cases linked to this variant were from Gauteng, said Professor de Oliveira, News 24 reported. The team is generating data from other provinces.

Another scientist pointed out there were early signs from diagnostic lab tests this variant might already be present in many of the other provinces, although he cautioned this was based on a much smaller number of positive PCR tests.

UK

Britain confirmed its first two infections and suspected new cases emerged in Germany and the Czech Republic, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for Covid-19. Both cases in Britain were linked to travel from southern Africa, and in response the government expanded travel restrictions on the region.

Germany

Germany on Saturday identified the country’s first suspected case of the new Covid-19 variant, in a person who returned from South Africa. “The Omicron variant has with strong likelihood already arrived in Germany,” Kai Klose, social affairs minister in the western state of Hesse, tweeted, referring to the strain first detected in southern Africa.

Netherlands

Dutch health authorities said Saturday that 61 passengers aboard two KLM flights from South Africa tested positive for Covid-19 and the results were being examined for the new Omicron variant.

The positive cases — more than one tenth of the 600 people on the two planes — were quarantined in a hotel near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, one of Europe’s biggest international air travel hubs.

Passengers said they had endured miserable hours at the arrivals hall to get tested, with witnesses saying many people failed to wear face masks or keep to social distancing.

Israel

Israel has identified a case of a Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations first detected in South Africa, the health ministry said Friday.

“The variant discovered in southern African states has been identified in Israel,” the health ministry said, adding it was recorded “in a person who returned from Malawi,” with “two more cases of people returning from abroad” placed in quarantine.

It comes one day after scientists in South Africa said they had detected a new Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations, blaming it for a surge in infection numbers.

Hong Kong

One case of the newly identified COVID-19 variant has been detected in Hong Kong, according to local media reports.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has called for a special meeting to discuss the new Covid variant. “We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s the technical lead on Covid-19, said in a briefing.

Belgium 

Belgium detected Europe’s first confirmed case of the new variant of COVID-19 on Friday, and at the same time announced measures aimed at curbing a rapidly spreading fourth wave of coronavirus infections. Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke told a news conference that a case of variant B.1.1.529 had been found in an unvaccinated person who had developed symptoms and tested positive on Nov. 22. “It is a suspicious variant. We do not know if it is a very dangerous variant,” he said.

(With inputs from agencies)

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first published:November 27, 2021, 08:45 IST