The emergence of the newly identified Omicron coronavirus variant feels like a pandemic gut check.
Scientists have long known that the world would see emerging coronavirus variants. Viruses mutate constantly.
But when South Africa’s health minister announced Thursday the discovery of the B.1.1.529 variant, which appears to be spreading rapidly in parts of the country, it was the strongest reminder yet that the pandemic is not over.
In the hours following that Thursday announcement, several nations – including the United States and the United Kingdom – banned travel from South Africa and surrounding African countries.
The new travel restrictions announced by President Joe Biden on Friday will buy the US federal government more time to investigate the new Omicron variant that has emerged in South Africa, officials say. But not much.
Inside the government, it is seen as inevitable that the new variant will appear in the US at some point, but the new restrictions should give federal health agencies and their global counterparts more time to learn about the variant, including the severity of the disease it causes. Officials do not believe, based on current surveillance, that the variant is in the US yet.
Officials acted quickly to implement new restrictions. While the emergence of the variant had been flagged in the last several weeks, it was only in recent days that they learned how serious it was.
US officials are expected to speak to scientists in South Africa again potentially on Sunday.
The growing concern
The World Health Organization quickly convened a group of advisers and designated the B.1.1.529 strain a “variant of concern,” giving it the Greek name Omicron. WHO also called on countries to enhance their surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand coronavirus variants.
Vaccine makers were fast to identify the variant as a concern. Moderna said the Omicron variant represents a ‘significant potential risk’ to its Covid-19 vaccine.
“The recently described Omicron variant includes mutations seen in the Delta variant that are believed to increase transmissibility and mutations seen in the Beta and Delta variants that are believed to promote immune escape. The combination of mutations represents a significant potential risk to accelerate the waning of natural and vaccine-induced immunity,” Moderna said Friday in a news release.
Omicron was also quick to make an economic hit. The new Covid variant sent oil plummeting 13% on Friday as investors feared new government restrictions and slower economic growth. US crude finished the day at a two-month low of $68.15 a barrel, down 13.1% from Wednesday’s close. It was the worst day for oil since April 27, 2020, when Covid was spreading rapidly in the United States.
Now, as scientists work quickly to learn more about the variant, global health officials are urging people to wear masks, avoid crowded places and get vaccinated if they haven’t already. Omicron is another example of how Covid-19 is here to stay.