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COVID variant Omicron: US and Europe blocks travel to South Africa

ROME, ITALY, November 26, 2021 – Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a new “variant of concern” (VOC) called Omicron. This variant has a large number of mutations, which preliminary evidence suggests the following:

  • Increase in virulence
  • Evades current vaccines
  • Has high rates of transmission

The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. In a response to the WHO’s announcement of the Omicron strain, the United States, effective Monday, will be banning most travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

According to Reuters, the restrictions, do not ban flights or apply to U.S. citizens and lawful U.S. permanent residents.

According to European Commission spokesperson Erik Mamer, a case has been confirmed in Belgium. The European Union held an emergency meeting today which imposed travel restrictions mirroring that of the United States.

Saudi Arabia followed suit and announced a temporary suspension of flights to and from the African nations to prevent the spread of the new variant. For a list of other countries imposing travel restrictions, click here.

According to WHO’s press release, 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. 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.”

WHO is asking that countries around the world to do the following:

  • 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, such as GISAID.
  • Report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infection to WHO through the IHR mechanism.
  • Where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the VOC on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization, or other relevant characteristics.

The B.1.1.529 variant (Omicron) was first reported to WHO from South Africa on November 24, 2021. The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a Variant of Concern.

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