World News

WHO says new variant has many mutations with 'worrying characteristics'

Posted November 26, 2021 2:38 p.m. EST
Updated November 26, 2021 6:53 p.m. EST

Countries around the world moved to restrict travel from southern Africa on Friday in a frantic effort to keep a newly identified, and apparently significantly evolved, variant of the coronavirus from crossing their borders.

So far only a few dozen cases of the new variant have been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. There is no proof yet that the variant is more contagious or lethal, or could diminish the protective power of the vaccines, but uncertainty on those questions was one factor in the speed of countries’ move toward restrictions.

On Friday evening, the World Health Organization said the new variant was “of concern” and gave it the name omicron.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the WHO said in its official description. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other” variants.

Earlier Friday, the European Commission proposed that its member countries activate the “emergency brake” on travel from countries in southern Africa and other countries affected to limit the spread of the new variant.

“All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Union’s executive arm, said in a statement. “And travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”

In the U.S., senior Biden administration officials said Friday that travel will be restricted from South Africa and seven other African countries.

Starting Monday, the administration will prohibit travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi from coming to the United States, the officials said.

The travel ban will not apply to American citizens or lawful permanent residents, officials said. But they will need to show a negative coronavirus test before coming to the United States.

The administration made the decision after health officials in the United States consulted with South African scientists Friday morning and after the WHO later called the variant “of concern.”

Biden administration officials said they were continuing to work with health officials overseas to learn more about the variant.

In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants. This time, however, restrictions came within hours of South Africa’s announcement — at least 10 countries around the world had announced measures before South African scientists had finished a meeting with World Health Organization experts about the variant Friday.

In addition to the U.S., the countries that halted or restricted flights from South Africa included Bahrain, Belgium, Britain, Croatia, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore.

The new variant, initially called B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.

On the protein that helps to create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells, the new variant has 10 mutations, many more than the dangerous delta variant, de Oliveira said.

Still, even public health researchers who have been the most outspoken in urging protection from the virus urged calm Friday, noting that little is known about the variant and that several seemingly threatening variants have come and gone in recent months.

“Substantively NOTHING is known about the new variant,” Roberto Burioni, a leading Italian virus expert, wrote on Twitter, adding that people should not panic.

Stocks tumbled around the world Friday as the news of the variant spooked markets; prompted Britain, France, Italy and others to bar flights and impose restrictions; and terrified many Europeans already exhausted by news of breakthrough infections, surging cases before another imperiled holiday season, and rallies by vaccine skeptics.

But the case in Israel was a person who had recently arrived from Malawi, according to the state broadcaster, Kan. And Belgium’s case was detected in a young, unvaccinated woman who had recently returned from travel abroad, but not to South Africa or neighboring countries, Belgian researchers said.

Countries in Europe, once again the epicenter of the pandemic, wasted no time and were among the first to announce travel bans. Britain announced its restriction Thursday and put it into force Friday.

“More data is needed, but we’re taking precautions now,” Sajid Javid, the British health secretary, said on Twitter. The discovery of the variant by South African authorities this week comes as the virus was already galloping across the continent in a deadly fourth wave, especially in Eastern Europe, where vaccination levels are low and restrictions have been loose.

Italy’s decision Friday to block travel from South Africa and the region showed that even a country that has generally been ahead of the wave, vaccinating much of its population and introducing early, and then progressively stricter, health passes to keep infections low, is not taking any chances.

The history of the pandemic has shown that blocking flights has not been a panacea in stopping the virus and especially variants that spread with increasing ease. But this time, countries acted much earlier, and more restrictions seemed likely.

In a statement posted Friday on a government website, South Africa said it would urge Britain to reconsider its travel restrictions, saying “even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps.” But that complaint came before a flurry of other bans from other countries.

In the past two days, scientists in South Africa — which has a sophisticated detection system — discovered the variant after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub surrounding Johannesburg.

“This variant did surprise us — it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of delta,” de Oliveira said. This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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