New Virus Variant Triggers Curbs on Travel to Europe, U.S., Asia

South African scientists have detected a new Covid-19 variant that will stall efforts to curb the virus, officials announced at a press conference. Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant, called B.1.1.529, was behind an "exponential" increase in reported cases in the country. "[It] is now a variant of serious concern which driving the spike in numbers," said Phaahla. Virologists have detected almost 100 cases linked to the variant in the country.The World Health Organization has named the new variant "Omicron".

The news triggered curbs on travel from Southern Africa to numerous Asian, European and Middle Eastern nations, as well as the United States, where President Joe Biden was reported by CNN as saying that "We don't know a lot about the variant except that it is a big concern and seems to spread rapidly," Biden said. "I've decided we're going to be cautious." Many countries imposed bans or quarantine restrictions despite advice from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) against bans.

The White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN that the variant might "possibly" be more easily transmitted than existing variants and said it was "possible" it could evade immunity. "We don't know that for sure right now... we just arranged right now a discussion between our scientists and the South African scientists," he said.

B.1.1.529 has multiple mutations and it could help it evade the body's immune response and make it more transmissible, scientists warned.While the delta variant has two mutations and the beta variant has three - the B.1.1.529 variant has at least 32 spike protein mutations, Deutsche Welle reports.

The British government placed South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia on its travel red list, and has temporarily banned flights from these six countries.

CNBC reports that World Health Organization is monitoring the new variant and meeting discuss what it may mean for vaccines and treatments. "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," Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's technical lead on Covid-19, said in a social media question-and-answer session.

InFocus

A medical scientist works on testing of the novel coronavirus.

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