The World Health Organization (WHO) has classified the new Corona variant B.1.1.529 as “worrying”. The UN agency announced on Friday after consultations with experts. According to the WHO definition, this classification is a signal that a variant is more contagious or leads to more severe disease courses. In addition, with “worrying variants” there is a risk that conventional vaccinations, medication or corona measures will be less effective.
This variant, now called Omicron, has a large number of mutations, some of which are worrying, it said. Preliminary indications indicated an increased risk of reinfection with this variant compared to other worrying variants, which also include the currently predominant delta variant.
According to the WHO, B.1.1.529 was discovered in South Africa using genetic analysis from November 9th. Overall, the variant has so far been genetically proven less than 100 times. It has many mutations that scientists believe could potentially lead to easier transmission. However, according to the WHO, it will be weeks before it becomes clear what the exact effects of the mutations are.
So far, the international health authority has identified four “variants of concern”: Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta, which contributed to the fourth wave of pandemics due to their high transferability. In addition, two “variants of interest” are listed that appeared in South America at the turn of the previous year.
The European Commission, Austria, Germany and some other countries announced on Friday that they would restrict or prohibit entry from southern Africa. Instead, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier recommended scientifically sound measures and risk assessments on behalf of his organization. “As of this writing, there are reservations about travel restrictions,” he said. From the perspective of the WHO, damage to international traffic should be avoided. Instead, the precise observation of the infection process and the genetic analysis of any corona cases should be relied on.
The South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla called the travel restrictions “unjustified”. So far it is unclear whether variant B.1.1.529 is more contagious than other variants. The pharmaceutical company BioNTech is examining a possible adaptation of its mRNA vaccine. Belgium registered a first case with B.1.1.529.
The EU health authority ECDC is concerned about possible effects of the Omicron variant on vaccination protection. B.1.1.529 is the most deviating variant that has so far been discovered in comprehensive numbers during the pandemic, the Stockholm-based authority announced on Friday evening. This raises serious concerns that it could significantly reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines and increase the risk of reinfection.
According to the ECDC, variant B.1.1.529 called Omicron has a large number of gene mutations compared to the original virus. There are still greater uncertainties regarding the transferability, the effectiveness of the vaccines and the risk of re-infection. Nevertheless, the authority considers the likelihood of further introduction and spread of the variant in the European Economic Area to be high.
No cases of the new variant are currently known to any of the monitoring agencies in Austria, Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein (reasons) reported on Friday. It has not yet been detected in wastewater monitoring either. Mückstein called on people who have returned from southern Africa in the past ten days to contact a newly established AGES hotline on 01/26 75 032. There they will receive information on where to turn for an official PCR test so that they can be tested for the newly discovered variant. “This is a precautionary measure in order to detect any introduction of the new virus variant as quickly as possible and to be able to take further necessary steps.” Returnees from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia or Eswatini are affected.
Austrian researcher Florian Krammer, who works at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, looks at the new variant with a little concern, but without panic. Such a large number of mutations in the spike protein are “not good”. It could be a variant that will make it necessary to adapt vaccines for the first time. But more data is needed to make an assessment: “It’s too early to say something.” Still too little is known about whether the derivative of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen designed in this way is similarly infectious or even more infectious than the currently dominant delta variant, said Krammer to the APA. However, it looks like she has what it takes to better escape an established immune defense.
Norbert Nowotny expects that the new Corona variant Omikron will arrive in Austria “in one or two weeks, roughly in the range”. The reason for this is that the changed virus has already spread in South Africa for some time and may have been brought to Europe by tourists, a case in Belgium has already been proven, according to the expert on Friday in the “ZIB Night”.
The new variant also worries the virologist Andreas Bergthaler. You are dealing with a new virus genome “with a number of mutations that you had not seen before in this combination,” he told the Wiener Zeitung on Friday. It is still unclear whether the variant can break through the vaccination protection: This requires “strong epidemiological data and results from the laboratory. In the Petri dish it has been shown that the antibodies bind more poorly to some mutations, which is why this variant could undermine the immune protection”.
B.1.1.529 is not an argument against vaccination. “Basically, this new variant is all the more a reason to get the booster vaccination or finally the first vaccination”, says the scientist who at the Research Center for Molecular Medicine (CeMM) of the Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) developed the SARS-CoV 2 pathogen tracked. Whether the new variant will actually become more widespread depends on many factors that are still difficult to assess.
There are still many unanswered questions for the Berlin virologist Christian Drosten. It is unclear whether the variant is actually more contagious or whether another factor is the reason for the currently observed spread. “There is currently no evidence of a change in the severity of the disease,” said Drosten.
The genome changes in the pathogen indicated that the virus variant could evade the immune system. “Changes in the genome alone are not enough to speak of a worrying situation,” said the virologist from the Berlin Charité. In addition, it must be clear that the virus spreads faster or has other changed properties, for example a more severe course of the disease. The evaluation of the variant has not yet been completed. In South Africa there was a big wave of the delta variant in the winter there, Drosten continued. It is likely that the end of the wave of proliferation was caused by population immunity.