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Omicron: What do we know about the new variant that is worrying Europe

The new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus variant, first detected in South Africa, is genetically different from the others, has a high number of mutations, but it is not known whether it is more dangerous.

What new variant is this?

The new variant B.1.1.529, designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) as Omicron, registers multiple mutations and is potentially more contagious.

According to the scientists, the B.1.1.529 variant will have about 30 mutations in the spike protein (the “key” that allows the virus to enter human cells).

Scientists know that the new variant of SARS-CoV-2, which causes covid-19, is genetically different from others, including Delta, the most contagious of all circulating and dominant coronavirus variants in the world.

What do you know about this mutation?

Virologist Lawrence Young, from the University of Warwick, UK, said, quoted by the AP news agency, that it is the “version of the virus with the most mutations” genetic, but the meaning of many of them is still unknown. Therefore, it is not known whether these genetic alterations make the respective variant more transmissible or dangerous, to the point of evading the protection provided by vaccines against covid-19.

The coronavirus mutates as it spreads, and many new variants, including those with worrying genetic changes, often disappear.

When was it detected?

The new B.1.1.529 variant was detected on November 11 in South Africa after an exponential rise in infections, which prompted scientists to study virus samples related to the outbreak.

And where has it already been identified?

After South Africa, this variant has already been identified in Belgium, Israel, Hong Kong (Administrative Region of China), and Botswana.

In the first case of infection detected in Europe, it is known that it was detected on November 22 and that it is an unvaccinated young woman who developed symptoms 11 days after traveling to Egypt through Turkey, as indicated by the National Laboratory Country Reference.

The patient appears to have had no high-risk contacts outside her home and no family member has developed symptoms so far, added the laboratory, which is conducting a comprehensive investigation into the case.

About 30 mutations of this new variant have already been identified in places like South Africa, Botswana or Hong Kong, which has generated worldwide concern and the imposition, by European countries, of restrictions on travelers from African countries Southern.

Why is it considered a worrying variant?

Speaking to The Guardian, Susan Hopkins, the UK Health and Safety Agency’s top medical adviser, considers this strain to be “the most worrisome we’ve seen”, with transmission levels unrecorded since the start of the pandemic.

Hopkins said it is suggested that the Transmissibility Index (Rt) value of the B.1.1.529 variant in Gauteng, the province in South Africa where the strain was found, was now 2, meaning that one infected person would infect others. two – with an R above 1, an epidemic grows exponentially.

On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Hopkins stated that “what we are seeing in South Africa is that they were at a very low point, with a very low number of cases detected per day, and in a period shorter than two weeks more than doubled the epidemiological picture.

The researcher at the Ricardo Jorge National Health Institute (INSA -Portugal) João Paulo Gomes said, in statements to Lusa, that this new strain is under study.

According to the microbiologist, it is a strain that worries the scientific community, because it is characterized by the simultaneous presence of “an abnormal number of mutations in the protein of interest, the ‘Spike’ protein”.

“Many of these mutations are in the binding zone to our cells and others are mutations known to be associated with antibody binding failure, and therefore the problem with this new strain is that it has many more of these mutations than the other variants that have worried us so far. ”, he explained.

“It is important that countries monitor it, be attentive and ready and we will see to what extent it has some undesirable impact,” he added.

João Paulo Gomes recalled that South Africa was once the incubator of a variant of concern, the Beta variant – which did not have very strong dissemination throughout the world, it did not exceed 5%.

However, it is estimated to have reached around 90 to 95% of all cases of infection in South Africa.

“Now, obviously, given the type of mutations this new strain has, the last thing we want is for it to spread to the rest of the world, so I think we have to be careful.”

Does this new variant affect the protection provided by vaccines?

The researcher João Paulo Gomes emphasized, however, that it is not because of the simultaneous presence of the respective relevant mutations that makes it “more transmissible or associated with vaccine failures”.

“We have to give it time. It’s a cause for concern of course, but it’s not cause for total alarm”, she considered.

However, the German laboratory BioNTech and Pfizer hope to have in two weeks the first results of the studies that will determine whether the new variant of covid-19, detected in South Africa, is capable of affecting the protection of the vaccine.

“Immediately, we launched studies on the B.1.1.529 variant” (detected in South Africa) which “clearly differs from the already known variants because it has additional mutations in the spike protein”, characteristic of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, explained the porta -BioNTech’s spokesperson to the AFP news agency.

Pharmaceuticals Pfizer and BioNTech prepared, several months ago, to “adjust your vaccine in less than six weeks and give the first doses in 100 days” if a variant is considered resistant.

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) considers it “premature” to make predictions about a possible adaptation of vaccines against covid-19 in relation to the new variant. “We are closely following the newly emerged variant B.1.1.529, which has numerous mutations in the spike protein,” the EMA said in a statement to AFP.

However, the European regulator admitted that “if it turns out that a new mutant variant escapes immunity and spreads rapidly (…), an adaptation in the vaccines currently licensed in the community market would become relevant”.

How to proceed?

Scientists monitor the genetic sequences of SARS-CoV-2 for mutations that could make it more contagious or deadly, but they need time to determine if there is a correlation between a certain pattern of infections in an outbreak and the genetic sequences.

WHO, which today brought together experts responsible for monitoring the evolution of SARS-CoV-2, indicated that “several weeks” are needed to know the level of risk and transmissibility of the new strain.

“Preliminary analysis shows that the variant has a large number of mutations that will require further studies and will take several weeks to understand its impact,” added Christian Lindmeier.

For now, WHO has advised countries not to take measures to restrict travel, while the virulence and transmissibility of the new variant remain unknown. However, hours later he classified the variant as “concerned” and called it Omicron.

Member States of the European Union (EU) have decided to temporarily suspend flights from seven southern African countries, including Mozambique, due to the identification of this variant of the coronavirus in South Africa.

The information was released late in the afternoon on the social network Twitter by the Slovenian Presidency of the Council of the EU, which reports that the Council’s Response to Crisis Situations (IPCR) group, bringing together Member States, European institutions, and experts. Slovenia appealed to Member States to test and quarantine all arriving passengers”, he adds in the same information, bearing in mind that the decision on travel always rests with each country.

For his part, the spokesman of the European Commission, Eric Mamer, indicated via Twitter that “the member states have agreed to rapidly introduce restrictions on all travel to the EU from seven countries in the southern African region”, needing to be treated. from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

In Portugal, the Government determined the suspension of flights to and from Mozambique as of 00:00 on Monday, 29 November, following concerns and containment measures in the European Union.

In a statement, the Ministry of Internal Administration adds that as of 00:00 this Saturday, November 27, “all passengers on flights from Mozambique (as well as from South Africa, Botswana, Essuatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe) ) are obliged to fulfill a quarantine period of 14 days after entering mainland Portugal, at their home or in a place indicated by the health authorities”.

How is the situation in Portugal being monitored?

The INSA researcher João Paulo Gomes stated, in statements to Lusa, that in Portugal “continuous surveillance of the variants is continued and until today we have never identified any case of infection associated with this strain”.

The Minister of Health, Marta Temido, regarding the new variants identified in South Africa, said that the Government is paying attention to the information that is being shared and to the evolution of technical information and is monitoring the situation “with concern”.

source: with agencies

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