The World Health Organisation (WHO) has labelled the new Covid-19 variant found in South Africa, ‘Omicron’, adding that it is a variant of concern following its large number of mutations and faster rate of infection.
In a statement on Friday, WHO said the preliminary evidence also indicates a rapid risk of reinfection as compared to other previous strains, such as Delta.
The global health body added that the number of cases appears to be rising in almost all provinces in South Africa.
The WHO experts are therefore, urging countries to promote surveillance and genome sequencing efforts to better understand the variant.
It added that there are also a number of studies underway and the agency’s technical advisory group, known by the acronym TAG-VE, will continue to evaluate this variant.
The WHO said it will communicate new findings to Member States and to the public as needed.
According to the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the information about the new ‘Omicron’ variant is still limited.
“There are fewer than 100 whole genome sequences that are available, we don’t know very much about this yet.
“What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” she said.
Kerkhove explained that researchers are currently trying to determine where the mutations are and what they potentially mean for diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.
“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has, there’s a lot of work that is underway,” she added.
In addition, the UN health agency urged all countries to adopt a risk-based and scientific approach to travel bans linked to the new variant identified in South Africa and Botswana.
Kerkhove thanked researchers from these countries for openly sharing information to the UN health agency.
“Everyone out there, do not discriminate against countries that share their findings openly,” she urged, as countries such as Britain, France and Israel have moved to cancel direct flights from South Africa and surrounding nations.
The WHO officials restated previous advice that people can do a lot to protect themselves from COVID, including by continuing to wear masks and avoiding crowds.
“Everybody that’s out there needs to understand that the more this virus circulates the more opportunities the virus has to change, the more mutations we will see.
“Get vaccinated when you can, make sure you receive the full course of your doses and make sure you take steps to reduce your exposure and prevent yourself from passing that virus to someone else.
“Countries can do a lot already in terms of surveillance and sequencing and work together with the affected countries or globally.
“Countries can work together with affected countries or globally and scientifically to fight this variant and understand more about it so that we know how to go about it,” she added.
According to South African health authorities, so far, fewer than 100 cases of the new variant have been confirmed, largely among young people who have the lowest vaccination rate in the country.