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The omicron variant is scaring experts across the world. Here’s why

The B.1.1.529 variant is worrying experts. What is the Omicron variant?

Photo of the coronavirus.
The Associated Press reported on stories circulating online incorrectly asserting a study from the Francis Crick Institute in London found that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine destroys a type of white blood cell called the T cell and weakens the immune system.
NIAID-RML via Associated Press

South Africa has detected a new coronavirus variant, prompting concern across the globe about what might be next in the coronavirus pandemic.

  • The new variant — which has the scientific name B.1.1.529 — has prompted worldwide fears already during Thanksgiving weekend, including a dip in the market numbers and a rise in new potential travel restrictions.
  • One scientist described the variant as “horrific” and that it is one of the worst variants seen yet, per BBC News.

The World Health Organization classified the new COVID-19 variant Friday as a highly transmissible variant and a virus of concern, naming it “Omicron.”

Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the World Health Organization, cautioned people not to rush to conclusions.

  • “We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel. It’s really important that we remain open, and stay focused,” Ryan said.

What is the B.1.1.529 variant? What is the omicron variant?

The variant was originally discovered in Botswana where there were four cases of the B.1.1.529 variant, which were found in people who were all fully vaccinated. It was later found in Hong Kong among travelers from South Africa.

  • Belgium became the first European Union country to announce a case of the COVID-19 variant, per The Associated Press.
  • Israel, which has been a benchmark for the vaccine rollout, announced Friday that it has found a case of the new variant The Associated Press reports.

Per The New York Times, the new variant has a “big jump in evolution” compared to other variants.

  • “This variant did surprise us, it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform, per The New York Times,

The variant has 30 mutations in the spike protein and 10 mutations in the ACE2 receptor, which helps it create an entry point infect humans. For comparison, the beta variant has three mutations and the delta variant has two, per The New York Times.

  • Experts said the variant resembles the lambda and beta variants of the coronavirus.

How the world reacted to B.1.1.529

The news of the COVID-19 variant spent the world spinning into chaos Thursday into Friday.

  • According to The Associated Press, the Dow dropped 800 points at open Friday. Markets in Europe and Asia fell sharply and the oil dipped 7% as new the COVID-19 variant rattled investors.
  • Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said the commission will propose “to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529.”
  • Indeed, the U.K. announced that it would ban flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries beginning Friday as a result of the variant, per The Associated Press.
  • Germany said could have a flight ban by Friday night.
  • Italy’s health ministry said it looks to ban anyone from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini from enterting the country.
  • Netherlands and the Czech Republic are also planning travel bans.
  • Japanese nationals said those traveling into Japan from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine for 10 days.

South Africa said that the travel restrictions were a little rushed since the United Nations had not weighed in on the variant.

  • “The U.K.’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the U.K. seems to have been rushed, as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps,” country officials said.