Variant of Concern; WHO warns of a new COVID-19 strain from South Africa

By Arya M Nair, Official Reporter
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The World Health Organization (WHO) has named the novel COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529, initially detected in South Africa, “Omicron”. 

In recent weeks, COVID-19 infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of the B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021.

According to scientists, B.1.1.529 has a high number of mutations in its spike protein, which involves the virus’s entry into human cells. It’s also what vaccines aim for, so if the protein mutates enough, it increases the possibility that the mutations will protect it from immunizations. WHO has named it the ‘Variant of Concern’ (VOC).

Omicron has been demonstrated to be associated with one or more of the changes at a degree of global public health significance such as, increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation, decrease in the effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics and increase in re-infection chances.

The WHO uses the “variants of concern” term to signify strains that pose additional risks to global public health. So far, it has identified four of them, in addition to Omicron. The WHO also referred some strains as ‘variants of interest’ (VOI) if they demand close monitoring due to their emerging risk.

The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of COVID-19, said that studies are underway and that it will continue to evaluate this variant. WHO will communicate new findings with the Member States and to the public as needed.

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