On Friday, the world reacted with dismay to a highly mutated new variant of the coronavirus found in southern Africa as the United States, the European Union and countries around the world imposed new travel restrictions, financial markets fainted and visions began to emerge that the pandemic would finally come out. out of the pandemic. dim.
Just two days after the world became aware of this option, the World Health Organization officially named it “the worrying option”, its most serious category – the first since the Delta option, which appeared a year ago. The designation means that a variant has mutations that could make it more infectious or more virulent, or make vaccines and other preventive measures less effective, although none of these effects have yet been established.
After an emergency meeting, WHO warned in a statement that “preliminary data indicate an increased risk of re-infection with this variant” in people who have already been infected with Covid-19. In keeping with the practice of naming variants of the letters of the Greek alphabet, he named the new Omicron.
WHO and scientists on several continents have warned that very little is known about the Omicron variant or whether the dangers it poses justify its fears. South African scientists announced its existence on Wednesday, and the number of cases definitively identified, all in the past three weeks, is still small, less than 100.
But a swift global response has shown that after nearly two years of accusations that they were too slow and timid to tackle the pandemic, many policymakers would rather risk overreacting to a new threat than overreacting.
“We are following the path of utmost caution,” said Roberto Speranza, Minister of Health for Italy, which was hit hard when Covid first hit Europe early last year.
On Friday, Israel, Singapore, several European countries individually, and then the European Union as a whole, the US and Canada followed the UK’s lead on Thursday night, temporarily banning foreign travelers who had recently traveled to or from South Africa. several neighboring countries. As with past travel bans, countries allow their citizens and permanent residents to return home if they test negative for the virus, and some require additional testing and quarantine upon arrival.
President Biden has decided to ban travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi starting Monday, following a briefing by his top pandemic advisers, including Dr. Anthony Fauci.
“I figured we’d be careful,” Biden told reporters in Nantucket, where he spent Thanksgiving with his family. “We don’t know much about this option, except that it is a major concern and seems to be spreading rapidly.”
But even with travel restrictions quickly imposed, the Omicron, like previous options, is bound to expand and reach the United States, officials have warned.
“This will buy us time,” Dr. Fauci said in an interview. “It will be impossible to save this infection from the country. The question is, can you slow it down? “
“You don’t want to say that don’t worry, and you don’t want to say that you need to worry about illness, because we are gathering information quickly,” said Dr. Fauci, adding: “Although the numbers are still small, the doubling time is quite fast. and the steepness of the increase is really quite steep. “
The administration is already in talks with vaccine manufacturers about the possibility that they might have to reformulate vaccinations to respond to the option, according to another administration official speaking on condition of anonymity to describe the private conversations. But first, scientists need to determine that existing vaccines are indeed less effective against Omicron, a process that is expected to take weeks, if not longer.
Nov 26, 2021 5:08 PM ET
Equities and oil prices plummeted around the world as news of the option and travel restrictions – during economically vital holidays – raised fears of even greater financial damage from the pandemic. On Friday, the S&P 500 posted its worst day since February, falling 2.3 percent, while European stock markets fell 3-5 percent. Benchmark oil futures fell 13 percent in the US and 11 percent in Europe.
Scientists have identified about 50 mutations in the genome of the Omicron variant, which distinguish it from other variants, much more than in any previous variant, including more than 30 mutations in the spike protein that the virus uses to bind to host cells.
Changes in the spike protein are of particular concern because the antibodies of the immune system that fight the virus – whether caused by infection or vaccination – recognize and target the spike in the first place.
But leading Italian virologist Roberto Burioni said people shouldn’t panic, tweeting: “Essentially NOTHING is known about the new variant.”
In addition to South Africa, this variant has been found in a handful of people in Botswana, Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, but experience with previous variants suggests that when the first cases are detected, more cases are likely to go unnoticed.
“This option has been identified at a faster rate than previous outbreaks of infection, suggesting that this option may have a growth advantage,” the WHO said.
In South Africa, officials and business owners have reacted sharply to the international backlash. The country successfully used its sophisticated disease surveillance and research systems and quickly shared the results with the world, but their transparency was offset by disruptive travel bans.
“Perhaps the ability of our scientists to track down some of these options has been our biggest weakness,” said Lindive Sisulu, Minister of Tourism. “We find ourselves punished for our work.”
“We were on the British red list and we were trying to get out of it, and without notice we are on the red list again,” she told the national TV channel.
Health officials in Africa have suggested that a better alternative would be increased screening at points of entry or even longer quarantine periods.
“This will simply discourage different countries from sharing information that can be very important to global public health,” said Tierno Balde, WHO manager of the Covid response in Africa.
The response to the Omicron variant has been particularly rapid and acute in Europe, again the epicenter of a global pandemic, where the battle over vaccines and social restrictions is becoming increasingly fierce.
The number of reported coronavirus cases in Europe has skyrocketed from 700,000 per week in early September to 2.6 million per week. The upsurge started in less vaccinated countries in Eastern Europe, but then spread to heavily vaccinated countries in the west who thought they would not be vulnerable and were taken by surprise.
All of the countries that currently have the world’s highest population incidence rates are European – some of which are about six times higher than the United States.
South Africa, whose latest wave of coronavirus peaked in July, recently reported incidence rates well below the global average. But last week, the rate more than doubled from a week earlier.
The report was provided Cheryl Gay Stolberg, Zolan Canno-Youngs, Karl Zimmer, Linsey Chutel and Nick Cumming-Bruce…