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UNOG - United Nations Office at Geneva

11/26/2021 | News release | Distributed by Public on 11/26/2021 13:08

WHO labels new COVID strain 'Omicron', designates it as a 'variant of concern'

The UN health agency has urged all countries to adopt a risk-based and scientific approach to travel bans linked to a new COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa and Botswana.

According to the agency, preliminary evidence also suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant of concern, as compared to others such as Delta.

Currently the number of cases appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. WHO explains that the variant has been detected at faster rates than in previous surges in infection, suggesting it "may have a growth advantage"

Information is still limited

On Wednesday, WHO's COVID-19 technical lead, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, said the information about the now 'Omicron' is still limited.

"There are fewer than 100 whole genome sequences that are available, we don't know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves", she said during a Q&A on Twitter.

Dr. Van Kerkhove explained that researchers are currently trying to determine where the mutations are and what they potentially mean for diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.

"It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has, there's a lot of work that is underway", she added.

UN News/Daniel Dickinson
Air travel between has declined significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

'Do not discriminate'

Earlier today, the UN health agency urged all countries to adopt a risk-based and scientific approach to travel bans linked to the new variant identified in South Africa and Botswana.

Mr. Van Kerkhove thanked researchers from these countries for openly sharing information to the UN health agency.

"Everyone out there: do not discriminate against countries that share their findings openly", she urged, as countries such as Britain, France and Israel have moved to cancel direct flights from South Africa and surrounding nations.

According to South African health authorities so far, fewer than 100 cases of the new variant have been confirmed, largely among young people who have the lowest vaccination rate in the country.

"Countries can do a lot already in terms of surveillance and sequencing and work together with the affected countries or globally and scientifically to fight this variant and understand more about it so that we know how to go about…so at this point implementing travel measures is being cautioned against", WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told journalists in Geneva.

IMF Photo/James Oatway
A woman sews face masks to sell during the COVID-19 crisis in South Africa.

Protect yourself and others

The WHO officials reminded previous advice: people can do a lot to protect themselves from COVID, including by continuing to wear masks and avoiding crowds.

"Everybody that's out there needs to understand that the more this virus circulates the more opportunities the virus has to change, the more mutations we will see", said Dr. Van Kerkhove.

"Get vaccinated when you can, make sure you receive the full course of your doses and make sure you take steps to reduce your exposure and prevent yourself from passing that virus to someone else", she added.