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The new COVID-19 variant, first found in South Africa this week, has been designated as a “Variant of Concern" by the World Health Organisation. It has been named as Omicron. 

Amid the growing concern, the global health agency, on Friday, convened a experts' meeting to assess the new variant B.1.1.529.

Later, WHO said in a press release, “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa."

The variant has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

Here is all that we know about the virus so far: 

What did WHO say? 

WHO said Omicron may spread more quickly than other forms, and preliminary evidence suggested there is an increased risk of reinfection.

This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.

Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) has advised the WHO that this variant should be designated as a VOC, and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron, the statement said.

Moderna to develop new booster shot

The US pharmaceutical company Moderna said Friday it will develop a booster shot against the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus. It is one of three strategies the company is working to address the new threat, including a higher dose of its existing vaccine, Moderna said.

"The mutations in the Omicron variant are concerning and for several days, we have been moving as fast as possible to execute our strategy to address this variant," said Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel.

Pfizer and BioNTech to develop new vaccine

Pfizer and BioNTech said that they are not sure whether their vaccines would work against new COVID-19 variant ‘Omicron’. They further promised to develop a new vaccine against the strain within 100 days.

In statement released on Friday, the companies said, "We understand the concern of experts and have immediately initiated investigations on variant B.1.1.529," BioNTech said in a statement when asked to comment.

Pfizer and BioNTech said they expect more data on Omicron within the next two weeks. 

"In the event that vaccine-escape variant emerges, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval."

Britain cancels flight from South Africa, others follow suit

Britain announced late Thursday night that all flights from South Africa and its neighbours would be banned the following day. 

A flurry of nations -- including the US, Canada and several European countries -- have followed suit, concerned about the discovery of a new coronavirus variant.

Several other countries including Japan, Israel, Turkey, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates also toughened travel curbs.

Australia to announce new guidelines 

Meanwhile, the Australian government is set to announce new travel restrictions later on Saturday, the country's Channel 7 broadcaster reported. 

"#7NEWS understands the federal government will today announce changes to travel - in response to new variant," it said on Twitter on Saturday, without citing sources.

"Anyone who has been in South Africa in the last 14 days will likely face quarantine or isolation."

Why are the scientist worried?

The new variant appears to have a high number of mutations — about 30 — in the coronavirus' spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people. 

Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far suggest the new variant has mutations “consistent with enhanced transmissibility," but said that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not known," a PTI report suggested. It will take weeks to identify whether the vaccines are affective against the strain. 

Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said, “The biggest risk is that (this variant) is better at re-infecting people as well as being more transmissible and virulent."

India releases list of ‘at risk’ nations

Amid the concerns regarding the new virus strain, India added Hong Kong and Israel in its list of ‘at-risk’ countries. 

This comes after the Centre instructed the state governments to ensure ‘rigorous screening and testing’ of all international travellers landing in India from ‘at risk’ countries. 

The nations that are currently on the ‘at-risk’ list of India are – European countries, including the UK, South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel.

No cases of the new variant reported from India

The Centre on Friday said, no case of the new Covid-19 variant has been reported in India so far. However, regarding the new strain, Dr Sanjay Rai, centre for community medicine at AIIMS, said, as quoted by news agency ANI, the probability is that it may bypass your existing immunity either acquired through vaccines or natural infection.  

“It is a new variant. We need to wait and watch. We do not know its overall infectivity but the probability is that it may bypass your existing immunity either acquired through vaccines or natural infection. If it bypasses, it will be a serious issue," he said.

How India plans to track the virus?

The Indian government has also asked states to take caution and accelerate the testing process of international passengers, especially those travelling from African countries. 

Yesterday Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan wrote a letter to the additional Secretary, principal Secretary, secretary of health of all states and Union Territories to adhere to strict implementation of the Test-Track-Treat-Vaccinate measures. 

The Health Secretary said that all the international travellers travelling from and transiting through these countries are subject to "rigorous screening and testing", as per the health ministry's guidelines.

Delhi government called the meeting to discuss the situation

Delhi government has called a meeting of the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) on Monday to discuss steps that need to be taken. These experts will make a presentation to the DDMA to suggest steps to protect the national capital from the B.1.1.529 strain of the coronavirus. Delhi was one of the worst-affected cities in India during the second wave of the pandemic. 

(With inputs from agencies)

 

 

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