Omicron, the recently-discovered variant of the coronavirus which was first detected in southern Africa, has been declared to be a variant of concern by the World Health Organization (WHO).
The WHO said on Friday that omicron, named after a letter in the Greek alphabet, was first reported to it from South Africa on November 24 and the first known confirmed infection was from a specimen collected on November 9.
"Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a VOC, and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron," the global health body said in a statement.
Several countries are scrambling to contain the spread of omicron and have banned flights from south African countries even as stock markets and oil prices plunged on fears surrounding the variant, potentially dealing a heavy blow to the global economic recovery.
The UN health agency 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.
What are the risks associated with omicron variant?
Scientists have said the omicron variant appears to have a high number of mutations — about 30 — in the coronavirus' spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people.
The WHO, which convened a meeting of a group of experts on Friday to assess the data, said that "preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant," as compared to other variants. "The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa," the health body said.
What are the symptoms of omicron variant?
South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has said that "currently no unusual symptoms have been reported following infection with the B.1.1.529 variant."
NICD also said that as with other infectious variants such as Delta, some of those infected with the omicron variant of the coronavirus are asymptomatic.
Will the same tests detect omicron?
According to the WHO, 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," it said in the statement.
"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."
What can countries and individuals do?
The WHO said that countries can enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants. They can submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID.
They can also report initial cases or clusters associated with the Variant of Concern (VOC) infection to the WHO through the IHR mechanism.
Countries can also perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the VOC on Covid-19 "epidemiology, severity, the effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization, or other relevant characteristics."
People should continue to follow measures to reduce their risk of Covid-19, including wearing well-fitting masks, following hand hygiene and physical distancing, improving ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated.