The World Health Organization has declared the new coronavirus variant identified in South Africa as a variant of concern and named it Omicron.
WHO’s technical working group met on Friday to assess the new B.1.1.529 variant and decide whether it should be deemed a variant of concern or a variant of interest. Variant of concern is the more serious of the two designations. The delta variant that is dominating infections in Canada and around the world is a variant of concern.
WHO defines a variant of interest as one that shows genetic changes that in theory could give it the potential to affect transmissibility, severity of disease, or how well vaccines or treatments work on the virus and could cause significant community transmission in “multiple countries … to suggest an emerging risk to global public health.”
It becomes a variant of concern when there’s evidence that increased transmission or increased severity of disease may be happening, or that public health measures, vaccination or treatments may have decreased effectiveness against it.
Canadian health experts on Friday cautioned against alarm and said it would take time to assess the potential impact of the variant and that there’s no evidence that existing COVID-19 vaccines wouldn’t continue to be effective.
Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist in Toronto, urged Canadians to get vaccinated if they haven’t already.
In addition, he said the discovery of a new variant shows the importance of ensuring everyone in the world has access to the vaccine, because variants originate among unvaccinated people.
WATCH | Dr. Isaac Bogoch says it will take time to learn about the new variant:
South Africa has identified around 100 cases of the variant, largely from its most populated province, Gauteng, where scientists were doing genetic sequencing.
On Wednesday South African scientists informed the government that they were concerned about the variant’s large number of mutations, including to the spike protein, that could affect transmissibility.
They asked the World Health Organization to convene its technical working group on virus evolution for Friday to assess the variant.
Early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest it has spread rapidly in Gauteng and may already be present in the country’s other eight provinces.
Low vaccination rate
South Africa’s daily infection rate nearly doubled on Thursday to 2,465. South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) did not attribute the resurgence to the new variant, though local scientists suspect it may be the cause.
Only 24 per cent of South Africa’s population had been vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Friday, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus research centre. The number of shots being given per day is also relatively low, at less than 130,000. That’s significantly below the government’s target of 300,000 per day.
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 evolves as it spreads, and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out.
Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time. The B.1.1.529 variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travellers from South Africa.
The WHO has named four coronavirus variants of concern: alpha, beta, gamma and delta.
There are two coronavirus variants of interest: lambda and mu.