Scientist Warn of new COVID-19 Variant Omicron Photo|Courtesy|The_Guardian

(CNN)The discovery of a new and potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant by South African health authorities has sparked a forceful reaction across the world, with a number of countries banning travelers from several southern African countries.

The World Health Organization announced Friday it has designated the newly identified coronavirus variant, B.1.1.529, as a variant of concern, named Omicron.

Besides South Africa, the newly identified variant has been detected in Botswana, Hong Kong and Belgium.

It appears to be spreading rapidly in parts of South Africa and scientists are concerned its unusually high number of mutations could make it more transmissible and result in immune evasion.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said there is a “high to very high” risk the new variant will spread in Europe.

WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), an independent group of experts, met Friday to discuss the variant, a WHO statement said.

Photo|Courtesy|CNN

The advisers recommended WHO designate the variant as “of concern,” referencing the variant’s large number of mutations, the possibility of increased risk of reinfection and other evidence.

A number of studies are underway, and WHO will update member states and the public as needed, the WHO statement said.

WHO called on countries to enhance their surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand coronavirus variants.”Initially it looked like some cluster outbreaks, but from yesterday, the indication came from our scientists from the Network of Genomic Surveillance that they were observing a new variant,” Joe Phaahla, South Africa’s Minister of Health, said Thursday, stressing it is currently unclear where the variant first emerged.

South African officials initially said there was one confirmed case in a traveler from South Africa to Hong Kong. Then Hong Kong health authorities on Friday identified a second case of the B.1.1.529 variant among returning travelers on the same floor of a designated quarantine hotel.

Also on Friday, the Belgian government said one individual who had recently arrived from abroad, and was not vaccinated, had tested positive for the new variant, marking the first case in Europe.

Tulio de Oliveira, the director of South Africa’s Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said the variant has “many more mutations than we have expected,” adding it is “spreading very fast, and we expect to see pressure in the health system in the next few days and weeks.

“Viruses, including the one that causes Covid-19, mutate regularly and most new mutations do not have significant impact on the virus’s behavior and the illness they cause.Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of Brown University’s School of Public Health, told CNN the variant was “acting differently,” however, and it “looks like it’s much more contagious than even the Delta variant.”

A number of countries, among them the United States, have imposed new travel restrictions and markets in the US, Asia and Europe fell sharply following the news of its discovery.

Acting on advice from US health officials, US President Joe Biden will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, administration officials told CNN.

This does not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents. As with all international travelers, they must still test negative prior to travel.

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