The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated a new coronavirus strain detected in South Africa as a “variant of concern”, prompting countries around the world to impose travel restrictions amid fears over its potential spread.
A WHO advisory panel on Friday said early evidence shows the new B.1.1529 variant, which it dubbed Omicron after a letter in the Greek alphabet, poses an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible strains.
Global authorities reacted with alarm to the emergence of Omicron, which was first found in South Africa and has since been detected in Belgium, Israel, Botswana and Hong Kong.
The European Union and the United Kingdom have imposed restrictions on travellers from several countries in southern Africa as researchers seek to find out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant, while the United States announced that similar curbs would begin on Monday.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 Technical Lead, said on Friday that Omicron was designated as a “variant of concern” because it has some “worrying” properties.
“It has a large number of mutations and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics,” Van Kerkhove said in a video posted on Twitter. She added that multiple studies are under way in South Africa and other countries to better understand the severity, transmissibility and characteristics of Omicron, however.
The WHO also said it is likely to take weeks to determine how effective current COVID-19 vaccines are against the variant.
Helen Rees, chair of the WHO’s African Regional Immunization Technical Advisory Group, said scientists still do not know enough about the new variant to begin sounding the alarm – and cautioned against jumping to any conclusions.
“The fact that we are able to identify changes quickly is good news. It’s good news for the world. But we must be careful that we don’t then jump [to] conclusion[s]. We need to understand much more about this,” Rees told Al Jazeera from Johannesburg.
Since Thursday multiple countries have banned travel from several African nations, including South Africa, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe, due to concerns over the new variant.
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla on Friday condemned international reactions to Omicron as “unjustified”, telling reporters that global leaders were “finding scapegoats to deal with what is a worldwide problem”.
Phaahla said during a media briefing that South Africa was acting with transparency and travel bans were against the norms and standards of the WHO.
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said travel bans were not an appropriate response. “First of all, we know that travel restrictions do very little to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Adalja told Al Jazeera.
“Number two, it penalises countries like South Africa for being open and sharing this data.”
Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson – whose government imposed travel restrictions on Thursday – praised South Africa’s transparency in sharing scientific data during a phone call with the country’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, Downing Street said.
“They discussed the challenges posed globally by the new COVID-19 variant, and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel,” the UK government said in a statement describing the call.
Oksana Pyzik, a teaching fellow at University College London’s School of Pharmacy, said the new variant “shouldn’t come as a surprise” amid warnings from the WHO that global vaccine inequity could lead to the emergence of new strains of the virus.
“The World Health Organization has been warning us repeatedly … since the beginning of the pandemic that if vaccine inequity continue[s] … that inevitably will lead towards a more fit virus, a potentially vaccine-resistant virus,” Pyzik told Al Jazeera from Geneva.
“So we look across the entire African continent, there’s less than 3.5 percent uptake of vaccines at the moment and that has been due to a supply issue,” she added.
Mosa Moshabela, a professor of public health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said while scientists still do not know exactly how Omicron behaves, the two main concerns are its transmissibility and its potential resistance to immunity from vaccines and previous infections.
Moshabela said another considerable fear for African nations is that the new variant could lead to severe illness and put a strain on healthcare systems.
“In Africa, what we are most concerned about is the fact that a lot of our people are not vaccinated,” he told Al Jazeera. “And if a lot of people were vaccinated, we could be looking at a scenario where a majority will have mild disease when they get infected by the variant, and therefore really not put pressure on the hospital system.”
For his part, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on the world to speed up “efforts to deliver on vaccine equity ASAP and protect the most vulnerable everywhere” due to the “concerning” mutations of Omicron.
Tedros said on Wednesday that he hoped a consensus could be reached at a World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting next week for an IP waiver for coronavirus vaccines, a measure that already has the support of more than 100 countries.
US President Joe Biden reiterated his administration’s commitment to the waivers on Friday, urging countries set to participate in next week’s WTO meeting to back the measure “so these vaccines can be manufactured globally”.
“I endorsed this position in April; this news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly,” Biden said in a statement.