What we know about the new Covid-19 variant, Omicron

A new variant of the coronavirus has emerged, forcing several nations to relock their borders and leaving medical experts on the edge of their seats.

The variant was first known as B.1.1.529. The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Nov 26 classified it as a variant of concern (VOC) and named it Omicron.

Here is what we know about Omicron:

  • It was first detected on Nov 23 in South Africa.
  • On Nov 25, South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the new variant could be behind the surge in the country’s daily Covid-19 cases.
  • The variant was also detected in Australia, Botswana, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
  • On Nov 26, WHO issued a statement saying the new variant has a large number of mutations, “some of which is concerning”. The world health body went on to say: “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOC.”
  • On the same day, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said travellers with a 14-day travel history to African nations such as Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe would not be allowed to enter Malaysia.
  • Sarawak also tightened regulations for those entering the state.
  • Japan today locked its borders. Yesterday, the Philippines banned travellers from several African and European nations. Israel and Morocco did it earlier.
  • The UK and European Union have placed restrictions on travellers from southern African nations.
  • New Zealand, however, eased Covid-19 restrictions as Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said there was still a lot of evidence that needed to determine the impact of Omicron.
  • WHO said it remains unclear whether Omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants, including the Delta variant. It is also not clear if infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants.
  • The air and land Vaccinated Travel Lane between Malaysia and Singapore opened today. However, following concerns of Omicron, travellers entering either nation must undergo an on-arrival test. One positive Covid-19 case was detected at the Johor Causeway entry point this morning.
  • Deputy Health Minister Datuk Dr Noor Azmi Ghazali, had in the Dewan Rakyat this morning, said “we are still unsure how far the vaccines could work against this variant.”
  • While governments worldwide have already taken precautionary steps, WHO said understanding the level of severity of the new variant will take “days to several weeks”. It added: “There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those from other variants.”
  • European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde called on vaccination drives in poorer countries to be improved. He said: “We would not be protected until we are all vaccinated. If some companies can deliver packages everywhere, I am sure we can do that with vaccines too.”
  • Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and chief medical adviser to the US President, said Omicron “is a clarion call” for people to be vaccinated.
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