The World Health Organization has named the B.1.1.529 first detected in South Africa "Omicron" and classified it as a highly transmissible variant of concern.
In response, at the order of President Joe Biden, the United States issued new travel restrictions for South Africa and seven other nations beginning Monday, according to a senior administration official.
"This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning," the WHO wrote in a statement released Friday. "Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant" compared to other variants of concern.
This is the first time in months the organization has declared a new strain of the coronavirus as a variant of concern. The delta variant, the most prevalent and widespread strain of the coronavirus worldwide, is also a variant of concern.
Starting Monday, the U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president's top medical adviser.
In a statement, President Joe Biden urged unvaccinated Americans to get vaccinated, as well as for vaccinated Americans to bolster their protection with a booster, and called for other nations to help vaccinate the rest of the world.
"First, for those Americans who are fully vaccinated against severe COVID illness – fortunately, for the vast majority of our adults – the best way to strengthen your protection is to get a booster shot, as soon as you are eligible," Biden said. "Boosters are approved for all adults over 18, six months past their vaccination and are available at 80,000 locations coast-to-coast. They are safe, free, and convenient. Get your booster shot now, so you can have this additional protection during the holiday season."
"Second, for those not yet fully vaccinated: get vaccinated today," the president continued. "This includes both children and adults. America is leading the world in vaccinating children ages 5-11, and has been vaccinating teens for many months now – but we need more Americans in all age groups to get this life-saving protection. If you have not gotten vaccinated, or have not taken your children to get vaccinated, now is the time."
"Finally, for the world community: the news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations," he said." The United States has already donated more vaccines to other countries than every other country combined. It is time for other countries to match America’s speed and generosity."
Biden also called on nations meeting next week at a World Trade Organization gathering to "meet the U.S. challenge to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally."
"I endorsed this position in April; this news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly," Biden concluded.
Speaking to reporters in Nantucket, Mass., on Friday, where his family celebrated Thanksgiving, President Biden told reporters that Dr. Fauci and the White House's COVID-19 team briefed him on the new variant earlier in the morning.
Biden said that the U.S. will be "cautious" about the response to omicron, but noted that the recommendation from his team was to implement the travel restrictions on Monday, rather than start right away.
The policy was implemented "out of an abundance of caution" in light of the new variant, according to a senior administration official, who said that the U.S. is in "close contact" with South African health officials as they learn more about the variant.
The policy does not apply to American citizens or lawful permanent residents, the official clarified. Individuals in those groups must still test negative before traveling, per the administration's travel policies.
The official noted that over the last 10 months, the U.S. has worked closely with Southern Africa and other impacted nations to help get their populations vaccinated, including shipping nearly 94 million vaccines to nations in Africa alone and 13.3 million specifically to the restricted countries. The Biden administration has also worked to boost vaccine manufacturing in South Africa.
Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said 'there's no indication' that the variant has reached the United States, but noted that "anything is possible."
"There’s a lot of travel, you never know exactly where it is," he added.
Dr. Fauci said that the U.S. has arranged "a discussion between our scientists and the South African scientists" regarding the variant on Friday.
"We want to find out, scientist-to-scientist, exactly what is going on," Fauci added. "Right now, you're talking about sort of like a red flag that this might be an issue, but we don't know."
Researchers in South Africa believe is responsible for driving a spike of new infections in the country. Scientists said that the variant has an unusually high number of mutations, leading to widespread concern and travel restrictions from about a dozen countries.
"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," Minister of Health Joe Phaahla announced Thursday.
The variant, known as B.1.1.529, has a "unique constellation" of more than 30 mutations to the spike protein – the part of the virus that binds to cells to attack – which impacts transmissibility, Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the country's Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation, said at a briefing Thursday.
"We are concerned by the jump in evolution in this variant," de Oliveira said Thursday, adding that the "very high number of mutations is a concern for predicted immune evasion and transmissibility."
"This new variant has many, many more mutations," he added. "We can see that the variant is potentially spreading very fast. We do expect to start seeing pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks."
The variant has also been detected in Hong Kong, Botswana and Israel. Belgium confirmed its first case of the variant later Friday, an unvaccinated woman who traveled to Belgium from Egypt via Istanbul.
German biotechnology company BioNTech, which developed the widely used Comirnaty COVID-19 vaccine with Pfizer, said that it is already studying the newly discovered variant and should know within a couple of weeks if its vaccine is effective against it.
"We expect more data from the laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest," the company said in a statement. "These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally."
"Pfizer and BioNTech have taken actions months ago to be able to adapt the mRNA vaccine within six weeks and ship initial batches within 100 days in the event of an escape variant," the company added.
A number of nations have already banned travel to the country, with the possibility of more countries following suit – including the United States.
The 27-nation European Union imposed a temporary ban on air travel from southern Africa.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”
She insisted on extreme caution, warning that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months.”
The British government announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a COVID-19 test.
U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the dominant delta strain, and “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective” against it.
On Twitter Thursday, de Oliveira urged wealthier countries, as well as billionaires and financial institutions, for help combatting the variant, writing that "world should provide support to South Africa and Africa and not discriminate or isolate it!"
"By protecting and supporting it, we will protect the world," he added.
Germany said von der Leyen’s proposal could be enacted as soon as Friday night.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn.
Italy’s health ministry also announced measures to ban entry into Italy of anyone who has been in seven southern African nations — South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini — in the past 14 days due to the new variant.
The Netherlands is planning similar measures.
“These nations are considered high risk areas. It means a quarantine and double testing for travelers from these countries,” said Dutch Health Minister Hugo De Jonge.
In Israel, the health ministry said it has detected the country’s first case of the new coronavirus variant in a traveler who returned from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases have been placed in isolation. It said all three are vaccinated but that it is currently looking into their exact vaccination status.
After a period of relatively low transmission in which South Africa recorded just over 200 new confirmed cases per day, in the past week the daily new cases rapidly increased to more than 1,200 on Wednesday. On Thursday they jumped to 2,465.
The first surge was in Pretoria and the surrounding Tshwane metropolitan area and appeared to be cluster outbreaks from student gatherings at universities in the area, said health minister Phaahla. Anid the rise in cases, scientists studied the genomic sequencing and discovered the new variant.
South African officials had warned that a new resurgence was expected from mid-December to early January and had hoped to prepare for that by getting many more people vaccinated, said Phaahla.
About 41% of South Africa’s adults have been vaccinated and the number of shots being given per day is relatively low, at less than 130,000, significantly below the government’s target of 300,000 per day.
South Africa currently has about 16.5 million doses of vaccines, by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson, in the country and is expecting delivery of about 2.5 million more in the next week, according to Nicholas Crisp, acting director-general of the national health department.
“We are getting in vaccines faster than we are using them at the moment,” said Crisp. “So for some time now, we have been deferring deliveries, not decreasing orders, but just deferring our deliveries so that we don’t accumulate and stockpile vaccines.”
South Africa, with a population of 60 million, has recorded more than 2.9 million COVID-19 cases including more than 89,000 deaths.
To date, the delta variant remains by far the most infectious and has crowded out other once-worrying variants including alpha, beta and mu. According to sequences submitted by countries worldwide to the world’s biggest public database, more than 99% are delta.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.