Much remains unclear about this new variant, which scientists say has concerning mutations that raise questions about whether it is more transmissible. While the variant was first detected in South Africa, it is not clear that is where it originated. It’s also not yet clear whether the new strain can evade immunity or if it has the potential to outcompete the dominant delta variant, a very high bar.
Since omicron became known to the world a week ago, it has been detected in more than 20 countries.
The swift unfolding of events, scientists said, showed the world has made progress in coordinating and sharing scientific data. But countries and governments still remain divided on how to react.
“We are seeing what high-tech, collaborative science can achieve in providing critical data to public health officials and medical professionals during an ongoing crisis,” said David P. Fidler, a senior fellow for global health and cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations. “However, what we repeatedly learn is that this sophisticated, rapid and global scientific capability does not produce consensus on how to respond to new variants.”
It’s been a whirlwind past week. Here’s a look back at how this new variant has unsettled the world.
On Thursday, scientists in South Africa called a news conference to say they had linked a worrying rise in cases in the country to a new coronavirus variant.
“Initially, it looked like some cluster outbreaks,” Joe Phaahla, South Africa’s minister of health, said. “But from yesterday, the indication came from our scientists from the Network for Genomic Surveillance that they were observing a new variant.”
Scientists said the omicron variant could be more transmissible than past iterations and has around 50 mutations, approximately 30 of which were found on the spike protein, which it uses to latch onto human cells, raising concerns that the new form of the virus could also be more resistant to existing immunities.
After the announcement, chaos ensued as countries imposed strict travel bans on southern Africa and world markets plummeted.
The World Health Organization on Friday declared omicron a “variant of concern,” marking the shortest window yet between a variant’s discovery and a WHO declaration.
“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other” variants of concern, the WHO said in a statement Friday.
Governments in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and the Americas imposed travel bans on people flying from South Africa and nearby countries.
The Biden administration announced that starting Monday, travel would be restricted from South Africa and seven other nations on the continent: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
The breathless scramble to curb travel raised the eyebrows of scientists, who questioned the restrictions’ efficacy in most cases.
“Outside of perhaps New Zealand and maybe Australia — island nations — I’ve not seen much in the way of positive impact for travel bans,” said Peter Hotez, a professor in molecular virology and microbiology at the Baylor College of Medicine. “The virus just travels too fast and has too many ports of entry.”
By the time governments imposed restrictions, it was already clear the variant was in many countries: Cases were detected in Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and other nations.
The news of the variant also caused financial markets to drop. The Dow Jones industrial average marked its worst day of 2021, with a 905-point plunge.
By Saturday, more countries, including Australia, restricted travel from southern Africa as cases of the new variant were detected around the world.
Dutch authorities said that of the approximately 600 passengers aboard two planes from South Africa that landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on Friday, 61 tested positive for the coronavirus. Thirteen of those cases were believed to be the new omicron variant.
The Netherlands would later confirm Tuesday that the variant was present in the country earlier than originally known, highlighting that much still needs to be learned about omicron’s origin and what its impact will be.
The variant was also confirmed in Britain and Germany on Saturday.
As more and more countries began to restrict travel from South Africa and its neighbors, President Cyril Ramaphosa decried the bans, calling them “unjustified.”
“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant,” he said Sunday. “The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and also to recover from the pandemic.”
Malawi’s president, Lazarus Chakwera, spoke out as well, condemning the restrictions.
“We are all concerned about the new covid variant and owe South Africa’s scientists our thanks for identifying it before anyone else did,” Chakwera, wrote in a Facebook post. “But the unilateral travel bans now imposed on [Southern African Development Community] countries by the UK, EU, US, Australia, and others are uncalled for. Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia.”
The variant was also detected Sunday in Canada, marking its first two confirmed cases in North America.
Moderna announced it would put resources into developing an omicron-specific booster, with the pharmaceutical company’s chief medical officer, Paul Burton, telling the BBC that hundreds of people were working on it.
Fidler, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the potential push to produce and distribute new vaccines would resurrect old debates.
“The need to create a new vaccine against omicron will restart all the never-resolved controversies about vaccine nationalism, vaccine diplomacy and vaccine apartheid seen with the vaccines originally developed against” the coronavirus, he said.
Speaking from the White House on Monday, President Biden said omicron was “cause for concern, not cause for panic.” He urged Americans to get coronavirus vaccines and boosters, adding that “we have more tools today to fight the variant than we’ve ever had before.”
By Tuesday, many questions remained unanswered, adding to global anxiety.
Stéphane Bancel, Moderna’s chief executive, said vaccines might be less effective against the variant compared with previous strains.
“I just don’t know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I’ve talked to … [say], ‘This is not going to be good,’” he told the Financial Times.
From the origins of this variant, to its impact on vaccines, scientists warn, it could be weeks before the world learns how much of a real impact omicron will have.