U.K. Counts 2 Cases Of Omicron Variant, Health Secretary Says

Two cases of the new omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in the United Kingdom, the country’s health secretary, Sajid Javid, announced Saturday.

Not much is known about omicron, except that the potentially worrying variant was first detected in South Africa and has triggered a wave of travel bans restricting flights from the southern part of Africa. Officials are currently racing to determine how much protection existing COVID-19 treatments, including vaccines, provide against the variant.

No cases have yet been found in the United States. But Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a Saturday-morning appearance on the “Today” show that he “would not be surprised” if the variant is already in the U.S. Omicron has been found in Israel, Belgium and Hong Kong, while Germany is investigating a suspected case there in a traveler returning from South Africa.

Fauci explained why the new variant has given scientists cause for alarm.

“You would predict, looking at the mutations that have been identified, that it likely will be more transmissible. We don’t know that yet, but you have to be careful and assume that that’s the case,” Fauci said.

He continued: “It also has a bunch of mutations that suggests it could evade the protection, for example, of monoclonal antibodies, and perhaps even convalescent plasma for people who have been infected and recovered, and possibly the vaccine.”

“These are all maybes,” Fauci added, “but the suggestion is enough, and it seems to have spread rather rapidly in South Africa. Even though the numbers are relatively small, the ability to infect people who have recovered from infection and even people who have been vaccinated make us say: ‘This is something you got to pay really close attention to, and be prepared for something that’s serious.’ It may not turn out that way, but you really want to be ahead of it.”

Javid noted that the two British cases are “linked” and “there is a connection with travel to southern Africa.”

The two individuals are self-isolating in their homes ― in the Nottingham and Chelmsford areas of England, respectively ― while officials conduct additional testing and contact tracing. Their two hometowns are undergoing extra testing as a precaution, Javid said.

“This is a fast-moving situation and we are taking decisive steps to protect public health,” he added.

The U.K. will subject four new African countries to travel restrictions: Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. They join a group of nations singled out on Friday for restrictions: South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

U.S. officials say travel restrictions will go into effect Monday for flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique and Malawi.

South African government officials, however, have pushed back on the world’s rush to slam the door shut on travel from the region. South Africa has a particularly advanced program to detect new COVID-19 variants, and says it is being punished for providing insights on the virus that help scientists and health officials worldwide to better understand the crisis.

Experts still do not know whether omicron may be more serious than the delta variant, which spread rapidly across the world in 2021. Vaccine manufacturers are currently working to test their shots against the new variant.

The U.K. is relatively highly vaccinated ― almost 80% of people over age 12 have received two vaccine doses, and 88% have received at least one. Boosters are currently only available to front-line health care workers, people with certain preexisting conditions and adults age 40 and up.

By comparison, 74% of Americans ages 5 and up have received at least one shot.

Source: HuffPost – Breaking News, U.S. and World News

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