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WHO designates new COVID-19 variant ‘Omicron’ as variant of concern

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Canada, U.K. among countries banning travel from southern Africa due to “Omicron” variant' COVID-19: Canada, U.K. among countries banning travel from southern Africa due to “Omicron” variant
WATCH: Canada, U.K. among countries banning travel from southern Africa due to "Omicron" variant – Nov 26, 2021

The World Health Organization has designated a newly identified COVID-19 variant as a variant of concern (VOC), the organization announced Friday.

The B.1.1.529 variant, now officially called “Omicron” according to the WHO naming system, was first reported by South Africa on Nov. 24, the group said in a press release. The first known infection with the variant was from a specimen collected on Nov. 9.

Read more: Explainer: What is this new COVID-19 variant emerging in South Africa?

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the organization wrote.

“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.”

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Read more: New COVID-19 variant has nations stopping air travel from southern Africa

A “variant of concern” typically has characteristics like increased transmissibility, disease severity or immune escape – meaning that immunity granted through vaccination or previous infection with COVID-19 is likely to be weaker against such a variant, the WHO said.

The WHO has only designated five variants of concern so far. Before Omicron, the last to be added to the list was Delta, which currently accounts for the vast majority of cases in Canada.

Click to play video: 'Tam says ‘no indications’ new ‘Omicron’ COVID-19 variant present in Canada so far' Tam says ‘no indications’ new ‘Omicron’ COVID-19 variant present in Canada so far
Tam says ‘no indications’ new ‘Omicron’ COVID-19 variant present in Canada so far – Nov 26, 2021

Sharon Peacock, who has led genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, said the data so far suggest the new variant has mutations “consistent with enhanced transmissibility,” but said that “the significance of many of the mutations is still not known.”

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She said it would take several weeks to do the necessary lab tests to determine if current coronavirus vaccines are still effective against the new variant.

Peacock also said there was no indication that the variant causes more lethal disease.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: U.K. bans flights from South Africa, some neighbouring countries after variant identified' COVID-19: U.K. bans flights from South Africa, some neighbouring countries after variant identified
COVID-19: U.K. bans flights from South Africa, some neighbouring countries after variant identified – Nov 26, 2021

Speaking at a press conference Friday afternoon, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said that the variant’s mutations suggested that it could be more transmissible and potentially resist the immunity provided by vaccines.

With the designation of the Omicron variant as a variant of concern, the WHO is asking countries to enhance surveillance activities, report findings to the WHO, and report initial cases and clusters of infection.

A number of countries have already announced travel restrictions to South Africa and other nations that have reported cases of this COVID-19 variant, despite the WHO urging countries not to do so.

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Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.

“This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point,” said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain’s University of Southampton. He urged Group of 20 leaders “to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses.”

-with files from the Associated Press

Click to play video: 'New variant concerns and Bryan Adams tests positive again' New variant concerns and Bryan Adams tests positive again
New variant concerns and Bryan Adams tests positive again – Nov 26, 2021

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