WHO labels new COVID-19 strain a 'variant of concern,' as U.S. restricts travel from parts of Africa

The new variant out of South Africa is being called "Omicron."

Updated: November 26, 2021 - 3:53pm

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The World Health Organization on Friday labeled the new B.1.1.529 COVID-19 strain a "variant of concern" as stock markets reacted with alarm and some countries closed their borders to travelers coming from South Africa, where the virus was discovered.

A release from the global organization said that the independent Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus evolution has been convened to assess the seriousness of the South African "variant of concern."

"The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on [Nov. 24, 2021]," read the release. "The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on [Nov. 9, 2021]."

In response to mounting global pressure, President Joe Biden will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other southern African nations on Monday. Incoming travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi will be barred. 

The president was reportedly briefed by health officials on the new variant earlier today. American citizens and lawful permanent residents will be permitted to reenter the U.S. after testing negative prior to traveling. 

The W.H.O. noted that the variant, which they are calling "Omicron," has a large number of mutations, "some of which are concerning."

The organization is asking countries to enhance their surveillance and sequencing efforts in order to better understand COVID-19 variants. 

Dr. Anthony Fauci said Friday it was too early to determine if the new variant was resistant to current vaccines.

Meanwhile, the chair of the South African Medical Association (SAMA) says the new variant is out of Botswana and that currently there are six cases in the country.

"Six cases are not a lot, and this variant seems to have originated from an HIV positive patient," said Dr. Angelique Coetzee, adding that because there are so few cases right now, "we don't have a clinical picture yet, therefore we cannot tell patients that if you are suffering from the following symptoms please see your doctor." 

She noted, however, that while there has been a spike in COVID-19 cases in the country – patients have mostly mild symptoms – there is not currently a spike in hospital admissions.

U.S. markets responded Friday to news of the new COVID strain after being closed Thursday for Thanksgiving. It was the worst day for the Dow in more than a year, as the index ended Black Friday more than 900 points down. Other significant U.S. indexes ended the holiday week more than 2% down.