The World Health Organization (WHO) has named the new Covid-19 variant first detected in southern Africa “Omicron”, the UN health agency said after a meeting on Friday.
The global health agency met on Friday to name the B.1.1.529 strain and decided to classify it as a “variant of concern,” rather than the less serious designation of “variant of interest.”
Following the meeting of the @WHO TAG-VE today, WHO classifies B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern named Omicron.
We call for increased surveillance and genetic testing & thank 🇿🇦 for sharing their work in real time.
— Maria Van Kerkhove (@mvankerkhove) November 26, 2021
The Delta variant, which caused surging Covid-19 infections around the globe after it was first detected in late December 2020, was also categorized as a variant of concern by the WHO earlier this year.
The agency adopted the practice of naming variants after letters in the Greek alphabet, at least partly to avoid geographic stigmas being attached to the areas where they were first identified. Many observers had expected B.1.1.529 to be named “Nu”.
As for Omicron, the WHO said the strain has a large number of mutations, some of which are troubling. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other strains,” the agency said.
That statement came after WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier cautioned governments against imposing travel restrictions to block the spread of Omicron. He said that it will take a few weeks for scientists to assess how transmissible and virulent the new variant is, as well as its ability to evade vaccine-induced immunity.
Many countries are choosing to act right away with travel bans and quarantines in a bid to limit Omicron from spreading, rather than first waiting for research to be completed. Europe’s first confirmed case of the variant was identified on Friday in Belgium. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called for all air travel between the EU and countries with reported cases of Omicron to be suspended while the risks are assessed.