The WHO has officially designated a newly discovered SARS-CoV-2 variant B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern on November 26, 2021, and christened it "Omicron". This variant was initially discovered in Botswana and first identified in specimens dating to November 9, 2021.
The reason why the WHO designated this variant so quickly as a variant of concern, is that the appearance of the variant appears to coincide with a rapid increase in locally transmitted cases in the Pretoria region of South Africa, especially amongst the younger population. This is also occurring as the Delta variant peak is subsiding, possibly indicating that the Omicron variant is now out-competing the Delta variant locally (the WHO refers to this as a "growth advantage").
The Omicron variant is reported to have 32 distinct mutations compared to to ancestral strain, and is apparently the most mutated version yet of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Many of the mutations appear to confer the Omicron variant increased transmissibility, increased infectivity, ability to evade antibodies, and evasion of innate immunity, thus potentially making current available vaccines less effective. Some of the initial data is provocative and indicate this variant to be significantly more transmissible than even the Delta variant.
The Omicron variant has being discovered in Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, in addition to Botswana and South Africa. Many countries, including those in the EU, Israel and the US have limited travel to and from South Africa in order to slow potential transmission.
The speed of which these travel restrictions have been implemented reflect the heightened concern over the Omicron variant by scientists and healthcare authorities around the world.
We at Safety Nest urge everyone to continue following COVID-19 protection measures, including social distancing, mask wearing, and reducing unmasked activities in enclosed areas such as indoor spaces. Those that are eligible for vaccine boosters should consider getting them.
If the initial data on the Omicron variant is proven to be accurate, we are in for a challenging rest of Winter as well as beginning of 2022.