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World NewsWhere did Omicron Covid variant come from and where is it circulating?

Where did Omicron Covid variant come from and where is it circulating?

Doctor carrying PPE appears to be like on earlier than a house-to-house coronavirus testing drive on July 21, 2020 in Lima, Peru.

Raul Sifuentes | Getty Images News | Getty Images

LONDON — As extra instances of the brand new omicron Covid variant emerge all over the world, specialists say it’s doubtless that the variant, first recognized in South Africa final week, had already been circulating for a while.

The World Health Organization stated on Wednesday that not less than 23 international locations from 5 of the six WHO areas have now reported instances of omicron, “and we expect that number to grow.”

The U.S. then grew to become the twenty fourth nation to verify its first case of omicron. It was detected in a totally vaccinated individual in North Carolina, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed on Wednesday.

Other international locations which have recognized the variant the U.Okay., France, Israel, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and a variety of international locations in southern Africa.

The U.S., U.Okay. and EU, amongst others, responded to information of the variant final week by quickly suspending flights from southern African international locations, or introducing strict quarantines on anybody arriving from the area.

The transfer sparked anger in South Africa and has prompted criticism from the WHO, which stated on Wednesday that such reactions may deter international locations which sequence and report virus variants (just like the U.Okay. and South Africa, where main Covid variants have been discovered) from being clear in future.

Omicron circulating for some time?

The omicron variant, or B.1.1.529 as it’s formally identified, was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on Nov. 24. The first known sample dated back to Nov. 9.

But there are actually growing indicators that the variant was in circulation in different international locations earlier than South Africa’s well being authorities alerted the world to its presence. There are a rising variety of instances being found with no journey connection to the area, suggesting neighborhood transmission is going down.

In Scotland within the U.Okay., for instance, 9 instances have been detected which were traced again to a “single private event” held on Nov. 20 and not one of the people concerned are believed to have any latest journey historical past to southern Africa.

Then, on Tuesday, the Netherlands said it had identified the omicron variant in two test samples taken in the country between Nov. 19 and 23 — earlier than the variant was first reported by South Africa and journey bans got here into place. It was initially believed that two flights that arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa final Sunday had introduced the primary instances of omicron to the nation (there are actually 14 confirmed instances in all).

On Tuesday, Germany additionally reported an omicron case in a person in Liepzig who had not been overseas, nor had contact with anybody who had been.

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and the physician who first raised the alarm over a potential variant, informed the BBC Sunday that she did so after she began to see sufferers round Nov.18 presenting with “unusual symptoms” that differed barely to these related to the delta variant, probably the most virulent pressure of the virus to this point.

Meanwhile Botswana, one of many international locations affected by Western journey bans within the wake of the variant, stated final Friday that it first detected the variant on 4 overseas nationals who entered the nation on a diplomatic mission on Nov. 7 (once more, far sooner than it was reported by South Africa) as a part of its common Covid surveillance. It did not determine the overseas nationals’ dwelling nation.

Origin not in Africa?

At a press briefing held by WHO’s Africa workplace on Thursday, the UN company’s regional specialists informed CNBC that the origin of the omicron variant was unknown, and they criticized restrictive journey measures positioned on southern African international locations.

“Our surveillance system in the global world is not perfect yet,” Dr Abdou Salam Gueye, regional emergency director in WHO’s Africa workplace, informed CNBC Thursday throughout a press briefing.

“When we detect a variant or virus … usually we’re going to detect it weeks after it started its evolution. The only thing we are sure about, when a country detects a virus, is that that country’s surveillance system is good. That’s what happened in southern Africa, so this discourages the travel ban even more because … it is like a measure against a good surveillance system.”

He added that it was “not unexpected” that instances have been now being found in Europe.

“It’s only [with] the investigations that are being conducted that we’re going to know more about the origins of this virus,” he added.

His colleague, Dr Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a senior virologist in WHO’s Africa workplace, informed CNBC that the variety of international locations reporting the omicron variant was growing day by day.

“It seems that the majority of these countries that are [reporting omicron cases] now … are coming from abroad rather than here in Africa, so we don’t know where it started and we need very good scientific evidence to study the molecular evolution of the omicron variant further.”

Experts primarily based in Europe are inclined to agree that omicron has doubtless been circulating for longer, and extra broadly, than initially thought.

“The origin of Omicron is still unknown, including the location where it first spread,” Moritz Kraemer, lead researcher on the Oxford Martin Programme on Pandemic Genomics at Oxford University, informed CNBC Thursday.

“That in part is due to limited sequencing coverage and surveillance in some countries” he famous, including that South Africa has a properly established system of genomic surveillance.

“I personally do not think there has been wide undetected circulation for a very long time,” Kraemer stated. However he added that he expects the variety of international locations with imported and native transmission of omicron to be a lot bigger than reported.

Experts are broadly anticipating this variant to unfold rapidly given early indications from South Africa, where 74% of virus genomes sequenced within the final month belonged to the brand new variant.

Lawrence Young, professor of molecular oncology at Warwick University, informed CNBC Wednesday that “it’s no surprise that omicron has been circulating more widely and for longer than has been reported previously.”

“Once a variant is identified, particularly one that is likely to be more infectious, it will have spread far beyond the few original cases and countries. That’s the nature of infectious disease in a world where international travel is so common,” he stated.

Some epidemiologists have speculated that the omicron variant may have began to unfold internationally across the finish of October, a speculation agreed with by different specialists spoken to by CNBC.

Paul Hunter, professor of medication on the Norwich School of Medicine on the University of East Anglia, informed CNBC Wednesday that, given the earliest identified omicron pattern was taken on Nov.9 in South Africa, “clearly the infection must have been circulating a little before that unless the index case was the person in whom the variant evolved, but probably not much earlier.”

While Danny Altmann, professor of immunology at Imperial College London, stated he’d “certainly agree it’s a possibility” that the omicron variant was spreading sooner than November, and that there was no certainty it originate in South Africa.

“The point that it came to attention through rising cases and excellent sequencing around Goateng [in South Africa] from the second week of November neither proves it arose near there or that this was the starting point.”


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