Omicron Variant: An Update on What We Know

The strain identified as B.1.1.529 is causing some travel restrictions from some African countries, and medical science is rushing to understand its potential impact on the global stage.

Updated 11/28: The variant first identified as B.1.1.529, has been renamed the Omicron variant, and the World Health Organization has deemed it a variant of concern. Omicron was first identified in South Africa where it has been spreading quickly and it is starting to see cases be identified around the world. Two cases in the UK as well as a case in Hong Kong were in travelers who were in South Africa recently. Other cases have appeared in Australia, Germany, Israel, Italy, and the Czech Republic.

The South Africa Minister of Health Joe Phaahla made the announcement on Thursday of the discovery of the variant, identified as B.1.1.529. It is unknown where it first emerged, but has been seen in South Africa and Botswana and contains as many as 30 mutations in the spike protein.

"Initially it looked like some cluster outbreaks, but from yesterday, the indication came from our scientists from the Network of Genomic Surveillance that they were observing a new variant," Phaahla said.

Travel Bans

The United Kingdom Health Security Agency (UKHSA) also announced on Thursday that it has suspended travel from 6 African countries including South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.

"UKHSA is investigating a new variant,” the United Kingdom Minister of Health Sajid Javid said yesterday. “More data is needed but we're taking precautions now. From noon tomorrow [Friday] 6 African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned, and UK travelers must quarantine.”

The latest development means that residents of the UK arriving home from those African countries must quarantine for 10 days at a hotel.

Countries around the world have begun making steps towards travel bans from the African countries, and they include the United States, European Union, Japan, Australia, and Canada.

The World Health Organization (WHO) met on Friday to assess the variant and give it the Omicron name. "WHO is convening a meeting...to better understand the timeline for studies that are under way and to determine if this variant should be designated as a variant of interest or variant of concern," WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier, said.