Health officials are sounding the alarm about a new COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa this week. Experts worry that the rapidly spreading Omicron variant could be even more contagious than Delta.
Friday’s announcement by the World Health Organization sent financial markets tumbling, and put the US and countries across the world on high alert. First detected in South Africa, the Omicron variant has now also been identified in travelers to Belgium, Hong Kong, and Israel.
News of the new variant prompted a number of countries, including the United States to institute new travel bans on Friday. The White House says, starting Monday, travel to and from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi will be restricted. The ban does not apply to returning US citizens and permanent residents who test negative for the virus.
Meanwhile, in Europe, the UK halted all traffic from southern Africa, followed shortly by a similar announcement from the European Union, sending people scrambling to get back to their families before more restrictions were put in place.
"My family live in Australia and I'm going back to see them before the country shuts down, so I don't know when I'm going to return, I had to leave my job behind, and getting on a plane today," said Julie Carlem in Cape Town.
So far health experts say there’s no indication that the new variant is more deadly than previous mutations of COVID-19, like Delta. But they say it appears to be highly contagious.
"My main concern is that it shows that if a country has a 23 percent vaccination rate like South Africa, variants can continue to emerge," says Dr. Monica Ghandi, an infectious disease expert at UCSF.
"I think the rate of increase has been concerning for increased transmissibility, but biologically there are reasons to suggest that it also has vaccine evasion," added Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at UCSF.
That concern, says Chin-Hong, is based on evidence suggesting that Omicron may have a greater likelihood of reinfecting unvaccinated people. But Dr. Chin-Hong says it’s highly unlikely that current Covid-19 vaccines would ever become ineffective against the new variant.
"People should not be concerned about its ability to evade the vaccines. That I want to make clear up front," said Ghandi.
Meanwhile, Pfizer and BioNTech said Friday, that a COVID-19 vaccine could be tweaked and produced within 100 days to counter a "vaccine escape" variant.