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New omicron coronavirus variant spreads to several countries

Preliminary evidence suggests that the omicron variant might give a higher chance of reinfection for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) than other variants. – Photo by

A new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) variant called omicron made itself known in South Africa on Wednesday and has spread to at least 10 other countries as of yesterday.

The World Health Organization (WHO) identified omicron as a variant of concern on Friday due to preliminary evidence suggesting it contains several mutations that may affect its rate of transmission or severity of illness. The variant might also be easier for people who previously contracted COVID-19 to get reinfected with compared to other variants, though information is limited at this time.

COVID-19 infections have increased significantly in South Africa, with new reported cases more than tripling in a week, according to The New York Times. Current data indicates increasing hospitalization rates in South Africa, but it has not been confirmed that omicron is the cause, according to the WHO’s update on the variant yesterday. 

“There is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with omicron are different from those from other variants,” the WHO said. “Initial reported infections were among university students — younger individuals who tend to have more mild disease — but understanding the level of severity of the omicron variant will take days to several weeks.”

So far, the variant has been found outside South Africa in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy and the Netherlands, according to an article from Reuters. The Netherlands reported 13 omicron cases yesterday among passengers in two flights to Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday.

Two cases have also appeared in Canada as of yesterday. No omicron cases have been reported yet in the U.S.

The U.S. has joined several other nations in restricting travel to reduce omicron transmission, barring entry as of today for most foreign nationals from eight southern African countries. But the WHO urged against such travel restrictions in a statement yesterday due to the potential burden on others’ livelihoods.

“With the omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa. “COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions.”

U.S. health ministers will meet with those from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.K. today for a G7 meeting regarding the new variant.

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