The World Health Organization has declared the recently-discovered B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19, first detected in southern Africa, to be a variant of concern and renamed it Omicron.
The classification puts Omicron into the most-troubling category of COVID-19 variants, along with the globally-dominant Delta, plus its weaker rivals Alpha, Beta, and Gamma.
Nations rushed to ban flights to slow the spread of Omicron on Friday, while stock markets and oil prices plunged on fears surrounding the variant, potentially dealing a heavy blow to the global economic recovery.
Dutch health authorities said Saturday that 61 passengers aboard two KLM flights from South Africa tested positive for COVID-19 and the results were being examined for the new Omicron variant.
The positive cases – more than one tenth of the 600 people on the two planes – were now being quarantined in a hotel near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, one of Europe’s biggest international air travel hubs.
In Germany, a regional official said Saturday that health authorities have identified the first suspected case in the country of the Omicronvariant in a person who returned from South Africa.
“The Omicron variant has with strong likelihood already arrived in Germany,” Kai Klose, social affairs minister in the western state of Hesse, tweeted, referring to the strain first detected in southern Africa.
Klose said that tests late Friday on the traveler who had returned to Germany from South Africa revealed “several mutations typical of Omicron.”
The WHO said it could take several weeks to complete studies of Omicron to see if there are any changes in transmissibility, severity or implications for COVID vaccines, tests, and treatments.
“Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology… the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern (VOC), named Omicron,” the UN health agency said in a statement.
WHO… The change in classification came after a quickly-assembled virtual meeting of the WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution.
The variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on Wednesday.
The first known confirmed Omicron infection was from a specimen collected on November 9. In recent weeks, infections in South Africa have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection.
“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the WHO said, pointing to worrying characteristics.
“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs.”
It said the number of Omicron cases appeared to be increasing in almost all provinces of South Africa.
The United States, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Thailand, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Saudi Arabia were the latest countries to restrict travel from southern Africa, where Omicron has been discovered.
The strain reached Europe with one confirmed case in Belgium after being found in South Africa, Botswana and then in Hong Kong.
Anxious tourists in Johannesburg rushed to the airport to catch a last flight out as nations across the globe started shutting their doors, while many worried the new variant could be more resistant to vaccines.
Despite countries scrambling to ban flights, the WHO earlier cautioned against imposing travel restrictions due to Omicron.
The organization said countries should take a risk-based and scientific approach when considering travel curbs in light of the variant – but cautioned against restrictions.
“At this point, again, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters.
EU officials holding an emergency meeting agreed to urge all 27 nations in the bloc to restrict travel from southern Africa, even though many members had already announced flight suspensions.
“The last thing we need now is an introduced new variant,” Germany’s acting health minister Jens Spahn said.
South Africa’s health ministry, however, attacked the global rush to impose travel bans to slow the spread of a new COVID variant as “draconian,” unscientific, and contrary to WHO advice.
“We believe that some of the reactions have been unjustified,” Health Minister Joe Phaahla told a news conference, accusing some leaders whom he did not name of seeking a “scapegoat.”
Britain was the first to slap a flight ban from countries in southern Africa, just hours after South Africa revealed it had detected the variant which has multiple mutations.
All viruses mutate over time, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus which causes COVID-19 disease.
During late 2020, the emergence of variants that posed an increased risk to global public health prompted the WHO to start characterizing them as variants of interest, and the more-worrying variants of concern, to inform the response to the pandemic.
The UN health agency decided to name the variants after the letters of the Greek alphabet, to avoid the countries that first detected them being stigmatized.
The WHO called on countries to increase their surveillance and virus sequencing efforts to better understand circulating variants.