WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
- The World Health Organization o Friday named a new Covid-19 variant “omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern.
- Cases have been detected in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium.
- Countries around the world, including the U.S., are issuing ban travel from South Africa.
The World Health Organization designated the new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 a “variant of concern” on Friday and named it “Omicron.”
South Africa first reported the variant to the WHO on November 24, according to a WHO press release. Researchers there detected the first known case on November 9.
South Africa’s coronavirus cases began to rise sharply around the same time that the variant was detected, the WHO said. The country’s average daily cases have risen 13-fold since November 9, from around 275 to 3,700 per day.
Omicron cases have also been reported in Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium.
Countries around the world are racing to ban travel from southern Africa after health officials identified the new variant that they warn may be vaccine-resistant.
The head of the European Commission announced Friday that the governing body will propose banning travel from the southern African region to its member states due to uncertainty over the new variant.
Israel quickly moved to ban travel to and from all regions in Africa besides northern Africa after the case was discovered, The Jerusalem Post reported.
The U.K. Health Security Agency “is investigating a new variant” and “taking precautions now” while acknowledging that more data is needed.
At least 10 countries, including Italy and France, have banned travel amid concerns of the new variant, according to The New York Times.
The government of South Africa released a statement against the U.K.’s flight bans, saying the decision was “rushed.”
“Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organisation is yet to advise on the next steps,” the statement said.
The U.S. travel restrictions won’t apply to returning US citizens or permanent residents, however, they need to test negative for the virus before traveling.
When asked about the decision on Friday, US President Joe Biden told reporters he wanted to be “cautious.”
“We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is a big concern and seems to spread rapidly,” he added.