But when South Africa’s health minister announced on Thursday the discovery of the B.1.1.529 variant, which appears to be spreading rapidly in parts of the country, it was the strongest reminder yet that the pandemic is not over. .
In the hours following Thursday’s announcement, several countries — including the United States and the United Kingdom — have banned travel from South Africa and surrounding African countries.
The new travel restrictions announced Friday by President Joe Biden will give the US federal government more time to investigate the new Omicron variant that has emerged in South Africa, officials say. But not much.
Within the government, it is seen as inevitable that the new variant will appear in the US at some point, but the new restrictions should give federal health authorities and their global counterparts more time to learn more about the variant, including its severity. of the disease it causes. causes. Based on current surveillance, officials do not believe the variant is still in the US.
Officials acted quickly to introduce new restrictions. Although the emergence of the variant had been signaled in recent weeks, they only learned how serious it was in recent days.
US officials are expected to meet again with scientists in South Africa on Sunday.
The growing concern
Vaccine makers were quick to identify the variant as of concern. Moderna said the Omicron variant poses a “significant potential risk” to its Covid-19 vaccine.
“The recently described Omicron variant includes mutations seen in the Delta variant believed to increase transmissibility, and mutations seen in the Beta and Delta variants believed to promote immune system escape.” The combination of mutations poses a significant potential risk of declining natural and vaccine-induced immunity,” Moderna said in a press release Friday.
Omicron also quickly took an economic hit. The new Covid variant plunged oil by 13% on Friday as investors feared new government restrictions and slower economic growth. US crude ended the day at a two-month low of $68.15 a barrel, down 13.1% from Wednesday’s close. It was the worst day for oil since April 27, 2020, as Covid spread rapidly in the United States.
As scientists work quickly to learn more about the variant, global health officials are urging people to wear masks, avoid crowded places and get vaccinated if they haven’t already. Omicron is another example of how Covid-19 is here to stay.
‘Variants will be continuously generated by this virus’
“What’s really important as an individual is to reduce your exposure,” Van Kerkhove said. “These proven public health measures have never been more important: keep your distance, wear a mask, make sure it’s over your nose and mouth with clean hands, make sure you avoid crowded areas, be in rooms with good ventilation, and when it’s your turn, get vaccinated.”
And as the world learns more about the Omicron variant, current guidelines for mitigation measures — such as wearing masks — may change.
“There will never be a time when there will be a zero-COVID threat if the virus transitions to endemic,” Adalja wrote. “Once the virus is tamed – through the loss of its ability to threaten hospital capacity through high levels of population immunity and treatments – I think public health recommendations will be more relaxed, although some people voluntarily choose to stick with them.” use in high-risk contexts.”
Vaccine Scientists Test Omicron. already
As we look at what the future could hold, Covid-19 vaccine makers have said they are willing to update their coronavirus recordings to target newly emerging variants.
BioNTech scientists have already begun investigating the impact the Omicron variant will have on the vaccine developed with Pfizer, with data expected in the coming weeks.
“We understand the concerns of experts and have immediately launched an investigation into variant B.1.1.529,” BioNTech said in a statement Friday. “We expect more data from the lab tests in two weeks at the latest.”
If the current vaccine and booster injection are insufficient against the variant, a possible solution is to stimulate people with a larger dose, which Moderna says it is testing.
The company is also evaluating two multivalent booster candidates to see if they provide superior protection against Omicron. Both candidates contain some of the viral mutations present in the new variant.
Moderna is also evaluating an Omicron-specific booster candidate.
“Since early 2021, Moderna has developed a comprehensive strategy to anticipate new variants of care,” the company statement said, adding that “this strategy includes three levels of response” should the currently authorized booster dose of its vaccine be insufficient to stimulate waning immunity. . against the Omicron variant.
Commenting on the rise of the Omicron variant, Johnson & Johnson said in a company statement Friday: “We are closely monitoring newly emerging COVID-19 virus strains with variations in the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein and are already testing the effectiveness of our vaccine against the new and rapidly spreading variant first discovered in southern Africa.”
Vaccine maker AstraZeneca wants to understand the impact its Omicron variant has on its coronavirus vaccine, and it is also testing its antibody combination therapy against the new variant, a company spokesperson said Friday.
The spokesperson says that the platform used in the vaccine will allow the company to respond quickly to new variants.
“AstraZeneca is also already conducting research at sites where the variant has been identified, namely in Botswana and Eswatini, which will allow us to collect real-world data from Vaxzevria against this new virus variant,” they said.
The company’s antibody treatment, AZD7442, is also being tested against the variant, and AstraZeneca says it is “hopeful that AZD7442 will retain efficacy as it includes two potent antibodies with different and complementary activities against the virus.”
Kaitlan Collins, Virginia Langmaid and Naomi Thomas of CNN contributed to this report.