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WHO Names Variant; US Issues Travel Restrictions

World Health Organization dubs it 'omicron' and calls it a 'variant of concern'
By Rob Quinn,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 26, 2021 11:05 AM CST
Updated Nov 26, 2021 1:32 PM CST
First Case of New Variant Detected in Europe
People wait at the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021.   (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

(Newser) – The world got an unwanted new arrival on Friday: omicron. Here's the latest on the worrisome new COVID variant:

  • New name: After an emergency review, the World Health Organization on Friday declared the emerging strain of COVID a "variant of concern," reports the Washington Post. The variant, first detected in South Africa, was dubbed Omicron, named after a Greek letter in keeping with other variants such as delta.
  • Travel restrictions: The US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other African nations: Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. The restrictions are to start Monday, reports Politico.
  • 'Most worrying': Much is unknown about the strain, but researchers fear its large number of mutations will help it spread easily and perhaps better evade vaccines. For now, the variant is the "most worrying we've seen," says Susan Hopkins, an adviser to Britain's Health and Security Agency. So far, no cases have been reported in the US.

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  • Found in Europe: The first case of the new variant has been detected in Europe, adding to worries about how far the strain already has spread. The Guardian reports that Belgium confirmed a case of the variant in an unvaccinated woman with no travel links to South Africa or neighboring countries. Authorities say the woman developed mild symptoms 11 days after traveling from Egypt to Belgium via Turkey. The only other known cases outside southern Africa are in Israel, where a traveler who had returned from Malawi is now in isolation, and Hong Kong, where two travelers tested positive while in hotel quarantine.

  • Restrictions elsewhere: More than a dozen countries in Europe and Asia have halted or restricted travel from countries in southern Africa, and the European Commission has urged all EU members to put an "emergency brake" on travel, the New York Times reports. Earlier Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN that there is "no indication" the variant has arrived in the US, but "we're rushing now to get that scientific data."

  • Seeking answers: Fauci says the variant has more than 30 mutations to its spike protein, which "are raising some concern, particularly with regard to possibly transmissibility increase, and possibly evasion of immune response." Fauci says officials have arranged talks Friday between American scientists and their South African counterparts. "We want to find out, scientist-to-scientist, exactly what is going on," he says. (Scientists say the new variant is a "big jump in evolution.")

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