America’s top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci has said that the new COVID-19 Omicron variant is in “fluid motion” in South Africa and the US scientists are in “very active” communication with their colleagues in that country to test the strain, get facts and find out whether or not it evades the antibodies.
The new potentially more contagious B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) from South Africa on November 24, and has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.
It was on Friday designated as a Variant of Concern by the WHO, which named it Omicron. A variant of concern is the WHO’s top category of worrying COVID-19 variants.
Talking to CNN, Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that there is certainly a new variant in South Africa “that has some mutations that are raising some concerns particularly with regard to possibly transmissibility, increase and possibly evasion of immune response.”
Fauci, also the Chief Medical Advisor to US President Joe Biden, said that the new variant seems to be spreading at a reasonably rapid rate in South Africa.
“So it is in a fluid motion. We are finding more about it and literally something in real time. We are learning more and more about it,” he said.
Fauci said that there is no indication that the new variant is present in the US but anything is possible as there is a lot of travel involved.
“We are getting together to find the precise molecular makeup of it so you could actually test for it. That will take a bit to put the appropriate material together but we are in very active communication with our South African colleagues and scientists,” he said.
On whether the new variant evades antibodies, Fauci explained, “when you look at a mutation it is going to give you a hint or indication that it might evade the immune response. You need to get that particular sequence of the virus, put it in a form in the lab where you can actually test the different antibodies so you can have a prediction that it might evade or you can prove it.
“We are getting the material together with South African colleagues to get a situation where you can actually directly test it. We don’t know. Once we test, you can tell for sure whether it does or does not evade the antibodies that we make for example against the virus through a vaccine,” he said.
Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told CNN the variant was “acting differently,” however, and it “looks like it’s much more contagious than even the Delta variant.”
Lawrence Young, a virologist and a professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School in the United Kingdom, said the Omicron variant was “very worrying.”
“It is the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen to date. This variant carries some changes we’ve seen previously in other variants but never all together in one virus. It also has novel mutations,” Young said in a statement.
The variant has a high number of mutations, about 50 overall. Crucially, South African genomic scientists said Thursday more than 30 of the mutations were found in the spike protein — the structure the virus uses to get into the cells they attack.
Neil Ferguson, the director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, said in a statement the number of mutations on the spike protein was “unprecedented.”
“The spike protein gene [is] the protein which is the target of most vaccines. There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants,” Ferguson said.
The US has from Monday restricted travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the southern Africa region.
Countries around the world are currently racing to introduce travel bans and restrictions on southern African countries in an effort to contain Omicron’s spread.
European countries along with the UK have banned travel to and from South Africa and neighbouring countries of Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, as well as Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), both of which are landlocked within South Africa.
Other countries include Mauritius, Israel, Sri Lanka and the Netherlands.
Many other countries followed suit, most of them indicating that only their own citizens would be allowed back, subject to a quarantine period.
In New Delhi, the Indian government asked all states and union territories to conduct rigorous screening and testing of all international travellers coming from or transiting through South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana, where a new variant has been detected.