Our best bet against the new coronavirus strain is to get more people vaccinated. Infectious diseases specialist Professor Ian Sunne says that the ratio of hospitalisations leans towards the unvaccinated. Courtesy #DStv403
GENEVA - The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the recently-discovered B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19, first detected in southern Africa, to be a variant of concern and renamed it Omicron.
The classification puts Omicron into the most-troubling category of COVID-19 variants, along with the globally-dominant Delta, plus its weaker rivals Alpha, Beta and Gamma.
"Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology... the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern (VOC), named Omicron," the UN health agency said in a statement.
The WHO said it could take several weeks to complete studies of Omicron to see if there are any changes in transmissibility, severity or implications for Covid vaccines, tests and treatments.
The change in classification came after a quickly-assembled virtual meeting of the WHO's Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution.
The variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on Wednesday.
The first known confirmed Omicron infection was from a specimen collected on November 9. In recent weeks, infections in South Africa have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection.
"This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning," the WHO said, pointing to worrying characteristics.
"Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs."
It said the number of Omicron cases appeared to be increasing in almost all provinces of South Africa.
As for testing for the strain, the WHO added: "Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant."
The WHO on Friday called on countries to increase their surveillance and virus sequencing efforts to better understand circulating variants.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on Covid-19, urged people to reduce their chances of catching the virus.
"We understand that people are concerned," she said.
"What's really important as an individual is to lower your exposure.
"These proven public health measures, have never been more important," she said, citing distancing, mask-wearing, avoiding crowded spaces, good ventilation, "and when it's your turn, get vaccinated".
Apart from South Africa, Omicron has been detected in Israel in a person coming from Malawi; Botswana; Belgium and Hong Kong.
Despite countries scrambling to ban flights, the WHO earlier cautioned against imposing travel restrictions due to Omicron.
The organisation said countries should take a risk-based and scientific approach when considering travel curbs in light of the variant -- but cautioned against restrictions.
"At this point, again, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against," spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters.