The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared a new coronavirus variant to be “of concern” and named it Omicron.
Initially named B.1.1.529, the new coronavirus variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on 24 November and has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.
By Friday, several countries had banned travel from southern Africa, with the UK adding South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland and Namibia to a so-called “red list”.
Scientists said B.1.1.529 had a large number of mutations and early evidence suggested it is highly transmissible and increased the risk of reinfection.
Viruses, by their nature, tend to change or mutate, over time and a variant becomes a variant of concern when that mutation might affect things like transmissibility, virulence or the effectiveness of vaccines.
On Friday, WHO noted that the number of the Omicron variant appeared to be increasing in almost all of South Africa’s provinces.
The WHO has said it will take several few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant, as scientists work to determine its transmissibility.
It has warned against countries rushing to impose travel restrictions, saying they should look to a “risk-based and scientific approach”.
However, the UK, EU countries and Switzerland have temporarily halted flights from some southern African countries, among them Zimbabwe which has not yet reported cases of the new variant.
South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla told reporters that there was no justification for imposing the flight bans.