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Omicron: WHO Warns of 'Very High' Risk; Variant in More Countries as World Scrambles to Gauge Threat

A vial and a syringe are seen in front of a displayed stock graph and words "Omicron SARS-CoV-2" in this illustration. (Reuters)

A vial and a syringe are seen in front of a displayed stock graph and words "Omicron SARS-CoV-2" in this illustration. (Reuters)

The WHO said it is in touch with researchers across the globe to better understand the nature of Omicron and new findings are likely to come soon.

The new coronavirus variant, Omicron, having a “horrific” spike profile has sparked a global alarm with countries rushing to impose travel curbs. The new variant, now designated as a ‘variant of concern’ by WHO, has been found in as many as 15 countries at a time when Europe was already battling a surge of infections.

Earlier in the day, WHO said the variant, first detected in southern Africa, was a “highly divergent variant with a high number of mutations… some of which are concerning and may be associated with immune escape potential and higher transmissibility”.

“The likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high,” WHO cautioned in a technical note.

On Monday, Netherlands, Denmark and Australia also reported cases of the new strain. Several countries have already clamped travel restrictions, including closing borders on South Africa and its neighbouring nations, while India revised its guidelines for international fliers from ‘at risk’ nations.

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India is, however, yet to report any case of the new strain, though alarm has been sounded as returnees from South Africa in Maharashtra and Karnataka were reported to have tested positive for Covid-19.

With the threat of the new variant looming large, scientists and health experts have been scrambling to find answers to some of the most vital questions: How dangerous is the new variant? Will it outrun even the Delta variant of Covid-19? Will vaccines now work? What is the level of severity? How transmissible is it?

John Moore, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, told Reuters, “So the question, really, is how transmissible Omicron is relative to Delta. That’s the major, major, major thing that we need to know.” But it would be quite sometime since we get a definitive answer to that.

The WHO said it is in touch with researchers across the globe to better understand the nature of Omicron and new findings are likely to come within days and weeks.

Will vaccines work against ‘Omicron’ variant?

Former Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) scientist Dr Raman Gangakhedkar on Monday told News18 that vaccines may provide only partial protection against the new ‘heavily mutated’ variant of SARS-CoV-2. Amid growing concerns over Omicron, the epidemiologist said the surveillance of the ‘Omicron’ variant will not be difficult if the government re-up its ante in testing, tracing, tracking and isolation.

Gangakhedkar emphasised that public has an important role to play by following the basic rules of wearing masks, maintaining hand hygiene and social distancing. “Omicron is going to hunt all those who are vulnerable or non-vaccinated. Everyone must make efforts to protect themselves against the virus and not provide an opportunity for the virus to enter, replicate and thus mutate further inside their body," he said.

Meanwhile, Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, India’s leading expert on COVID-19 disease and vaccines, said, that “vaccines are effective but do not offer 100 per cent protection’. “There are breakthrough infections with all vaccines and even with existing variants, including the Delta variant. It is yet to be seen whether the rate of breakthrough infections would be similar, lower or higher with Omicron. While the need for more neutralising antibodies against the variant or a reduction in vaccine effectiveness is a possibility, as has been with other variants, there is every reason to believe that vaccines are still going to work," he said.

In another development, Russia on Monday said that its Sputnik V and Sputnik Light covid-19 vaccines will “neutralise" the new heavily mutated ‘Omicron’ variant of the virus. As major pharmacies rush to test their jabs for it, the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology said that it believes the vaccines have “highest efficacy vs other mutations".

Novavax Inc said on Friday it had started working on a version of its Covid-19 vaccine to target the variant detected in South Africa and would have the shot ready for testing and manufacturing in the next few weeks.

The company’s Covid-19 shot contains an actual version of the virus’ spike protein that cannot cause disease but can trigger the immune system. The vaccine developer said it had started developing a spike protein specifically based on the known genetic sequence of the variant, B.1.1.529. “The initial work will take a few weeks," a company spokesperson said.

International Travel Curbs

Paraguay on Monday joined the list of countries to have announed ban or restrictions on travel for foreigners. It has imposed a travel ban on foreigners from 10 African countries in a bid to prevent entry of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, the South American nation’s migration authorities said on Monday, amid concerns about its spread worldwide.

South Korea on Sunday restricted the issuance of visas and travel from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. A 10-day compulsory quarantine at a special facility, along with three PCR tests, are mandatory for travellers from these countries.

Meanwhile, Japan on Monday announced that it would bar foreign arrivals from Tuesday and philippines on Sunday barred arrivals from seven European countries – including the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy.

Singapore has postponed the opening of quarantine-free “travel lanes” with United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia that was scheduled to be launched next week.

The United Kingdom, Japan, Brazil, Thailand, Singapore, Tukey, Egypt, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan have also announced restrictions on flights and travelers from southern African nations in light of the new ‘Omicron’ variant.

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first published:November 29, 2021, 22:10 IST