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VARIANT OF CONCERN

The new Omicron variant: What you need to know

New variant labelled a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation.

In Summary

• People who previously had Covid-19 can easily be re-infected with Omicron, as compared to other variants of concern.

• It is yet unclear if the new variant is a more severe variant of the Covid-19 since it is in the discovery process, which may take days to weeks to uncover.

As the Kenyan economy slowly reopens, a new variant of the Covid-19 emerged last week from South Africa and poses a possible global threat.

Kenya last week announced it will not ban flights to and from nations where Omicron has been reported but the government has promised to step up its surveillance in airports and other entry points by conducting intensive screening to contain the virus.

The new variant B.1.1.529 was labelled a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation on November 26, like the beta and delta, based on advice from the WHO Technical Advisory Group on the virus evolution.

It is not yet known where the virus originated but the omicron variant was first detected in South Africa, where it has become the dominant strain of the virus.

The South African scientists have however noted that the variant has a high number of mutations characterized by more than 30 mutations on the spike protein (the part of the virus that binds to a human cell, infecting it).

“It is not yet clear whether omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants, including delta,” the WHO says.

A nurse prepares a dose of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine as the new Omicron variant spreads, in Dutywa, in the Eastern Cape province, South Africa November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
A nurse prepares a dose of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccine as the new Omicron variant spreads, in Dutywa, in the Eastern Cape province, South Africa November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

They also noted that epidemiologic studies are being conducted to see if the Omicron is spreading fast in South Africa due to increased contagiousness or other factors.

“Preliminary evidence suggests there may be an increased reinfection with Omicron, for example, people who previously had Covid-19 can easily be re-infected with Omicron), as compared to other variants of concern, but the information is limited,” the WHO said.

It is yet unclear if the new variant is a more severe variant of the Covid-19 since it is in the discovery process, which may take days to weeks to uncover.

The AstraZeneca vaccine is administered.
CURBING COVID SPREAD: The AstraZeneca vaccine is administered.
Image: MERCY MUMO

There is no information to suggest that the symptoms associated with Omicron are different from those of the other variants but the WHO says it is coordinating with researchers around the world to better understand Omicron.

“Studies currently underway or underway shortly include assessments of transmissibility, the severity of infection (including symptoms), the performance of vaccines and diagnostic tests, and effectiveness of treatments,” WHO says.

No cases of the new Omicron variant have been detected in Kenya however, the Ministry of Health led by the PS Susan Mochache is urging Kenyans to turn up at health facilities for vaccination as well as observe the Covid-19 protocols.

A Singapore Airlines plane arriving from Singapore lands at the international terminal at Sydney Airport, as countries react to the new coronavirus Omicron variant amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Sydney, Australia, November 30, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
A Singapore Airlines plane arriving from Singapore lands at the international terminal at Sydney Airport, as countries react to the new coronavirus Omicron variant amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in Sydney, Australia, November 30, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

The variant has however been detected in over a dozen countries already including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and the United Kingdom.

With most cases being travel-related, multiple nations have announced either travel restrictions for non-citizens or outright travel bans.

Nations like Israel and Japan have closed their borders.

The government has said it is keen on the new variant and will continue to use the PCR Tests to detect infections.

"The government is keen on ensuring that other economic activities are not affected; that is why we are not supporting severe containment measures being reintroduced," Mochache said last week.

She urged Kenyans not to grow weary of maintaining the set guidelines as the virus is still mutating.

“Until more is known on this variant, let's observe the normal Covid-19 protections including wearing masks, social distancing, washing hands, and especially getting vaccinated all will help keep you and those around you safe,” she said.

Edited by D Tarus