WHO identifies omicron as new highly transmissible COVID-19 'variant of concern'

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The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Friday that it would classify the new B.1.1.529 COVID-19 strain as a “variant of concern,” and labeled it with the Greek letter “omicron.”

WHO made the announcement after an emergency meeting of its Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution. President Biden was briefed Friday on the new variant, the White House said.

“The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on [Nov. 24, 2021]. The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the delta variant,” the WHO explained. “In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on [Nov. 9, 2021].”

The omicron variant, the agency noted, has a large number of mutations, “some of which are concerning.” 

“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant. Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation,” the organization continued. “Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.” 

The WHO advisory group will continue to evaluate the variant and the WHO said it would communicate any new findings with member nations and to the public as is necessary.

The organization is asking countries to enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants, submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, report initial cases and clusters associated with variant of concern infection to the WHO through the International Health Regulations (IHR) mechanism and – where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community – conduct field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the variant of concern on COVID-19 “epidemiology, severity, effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization or other relevant characteristics.”

“Individuals are reminded to take measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19, including proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving [the] ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated,” the WHO concluded.

Variants of concern – which include alpha, beta and delta – have shown they can spread more easily, cause more serious disease or make current tools like vaccines less effective.

To date, the delta variant remains by far the most transmissible form of COVID-19; it accounts for more than 99% of sequences shared with the world’s biggest public database.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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