By Sharon Atieno

Unlike other COVID-19 variants of concern such as Delta, Alpha, Beta and Gamma, the new variant, Omicron-first detected in South Africa- has been linked to increased risk of reinfection, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), a group of experts that monitors and evaluates the evolution of the virus, have designated the new variant B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern due to its “large number of mutations, some of which are concerning”.

A variant of concern, according to WHO, is a strain of the virus that has been linked to one or more of the following changes: widespread transmission of the disease, severe infections, and reduced effectiveness of vaccines and other heath measures.

Omicron (B.1.1.529) was first detected in South Africa from a sample collected in early November,2021. The number of cases of this variant seem to be increasing in almost all provinces of South Africa, according to a statement by WHO. Between 12-20 November, the variant was detected in 77 samples collected in Gauteng province alone.

Though there are a number of studies underway on the new variant, the global health body is asking countries to enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating COVID-19 variants, submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available data such as GISAID and report initial cases associated with variants of concern infection to the organization.

Moreover, WHO is asking countries that have capacity to coordinate with the international community to perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the variants of concern on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization, or other relevant characteristics.

Individuals have also been advised to adhere to the COVID-19 public health and social measures including masking, social distancing, hand hygiene, proper ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding overcrowding and getting vaccinated.

Besides South Africa, Omicron has been detected in Botswana, Hon Kong and Belgium. Its detection has resulted in countries putting up more stringent measures including banning travelers from several southern African countries and putting up more vigilance at points of entries.