The World Health Organization (WHO) is expected to hold an emergency meeting about the new Covid-19 variant found in South Africa after several countries announced the suspension of flights from the region.
The WHO has named the new variant Omicron (Greek) saying it has been identified in Botswaana, Belgium. Hong Kong and Israel apart from South Africa.
South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla speaking at a press conference said the new variant, B.1.1.529, is behind an “exponential” increase in reported cases in the country.
“[It] is now a variant of serious concern which driving the spike in numbers,” he said.
Scientists say B.1.1.529 has at least 32 spike protein mutations that could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible.
In response, the United Kingdom (UK) added six southern African countries to its red list, with flights being temporarily banned, although it has not confirmed a case.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said from 12:00 GMT on Friday six countries; South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini would be added to the red list.
Earlier Friday, Belgian virologists confirmed a case of the variant had been detected in a traveler returning from Egypt earlier this month.
Belgian health minster Frank Vandenbroucke said, “We have one case of this variant that is confirmed. It’s someone who came from abroad.”
Marc Van Ranst, a virologist who works closely with Belgian public health officials, wrote on Twitter the case was in a traveler to Egypt upon return to Belgium on November 11. The individual developed first symptoms on November 22.
Younger people appear to be contracting and spreading the newly identified variant, but the coming weeks will be key in determining how severe the variant is, scientists have said.
At a press conference in Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said air travel to countries where the new Covid-19 variant was detected should be suspended until there is a better understanding of the new variant.
She said contracts with vaccine manufacturers state the vaccine must be adapted immediately to new variants as they emerge.
By Jamila Akweley Okertchiri