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New COVID-19 variant trickling into countries across the globe

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Photo by Alberto Pezzali / AP
Photo by Alberto Pezzali / AP

The Republic of South Africa informed the World Health Organization (WHO) of a new COVID-19 variant (B.1.1.529, also known as Omicron) on Nov. 24, which has since made its way into at least 15 countries across the globe.

On that day, the WHO announced that Omicron was a "variant of concern," meaning its transmission is higher, or it has a more detrimental effect on COVID epidemiology in comparison to other variants, or it has greater virulence or impact on clinical disease presentation, or it decreases the effectiveness of public health measure or vaccines, treatments, and available diagnostics.

That same day, President Biden issued travel bans on specific countries in Africa.

Preliminary evidence implies that the Omicron variant allows for a greater risk of reinfection in comparison to other variants, according to the WHO, which also reported that the number of Omicron cases has increased in the majority of provinces in South Africa.

Biden's proclamation stated that the US government, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), has "reexamined its policies on international travel and concluded that further measures are required to protect the public health from travelers entering the United States from..." the following countries: South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, and Eswatini.

On Nov. 30, the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) announced that Omicron was in the Netherlands one week prior to when South Africa reported it to the WHO, but it's still uncertain where it originated.

On Dec. 1, Omicron was first detected in the United States. San Francisco public health officials confirmed the case, though it is uncertain where the person got infected.

Travel restriction specifics
President Biden believes it is in the nation's best interest to limit entry into the US for noncitizen immigrants and non-immigrants who were physically present in any of the listed locations. The CDC will work closely with the Department of Homeland Security to implement any further measures for travelers from the countries listed, if needed.

The proclamation doesn't apply to US citizens, lawful permanent US residents, noncitizen nationals of the US, noncitizens spouses of US citizens or lawful permanent residents, or noncitizens who are parental or legal guardians of a US citizen or a lawful permanent resident who is under the age of 21 and unmarried.

WHO Omicron update
The WHO released its first Omicron statement on Nov. 26, followed by a press release with further updates two days later. According to the WHO, researchers across the globe, including in South Africa, are conducting studies to better understand the new coronavirus variant.

The statement mentioned how it is not known whether Omicron is more transmissible than previous COVID-19 variants; however, the number of people in South Africa who are testing positive has risen. What also remains unclear is whether the new variant causes greater COVID-19-related illness in comparison to previous strains. What the WHO knows about Omicron is that there is no information that suggests that symptoms differ from previous variants.

The data suggest that rates of hospitalization in South Africa are increasing, which may be because more people are getting infected, rather than the outcome of one person's infection spreading to others.

The first Omicron infections occurred in university students, and it will take several weeks before the WHO and researchers have a better understanding of the variant. Regarding vaccine effectiveness, the WHO believes it remains a critical tool in combating the virus, and it is working with technical partners to learn about the potential impact of the variant on existing protection measures, including vaccine effectiveness.

Studies underway are assessing the following: transmissibility, symptoms and the severity of infection, the effectiveness of treatment, and the performance of diagnostic tests and vaccines. The WHO advises the continued use of COVID-19 treatments such as corticosteroids and IL-6 receptor blockers.

"In addition, it is vitally important that inequities in access to COVID-19 vaccines are urgently addressed to ensure that vulnerable groups everywhere, including health workers and older persons, receive their first and second doses, alongside equitable access to treatment and diagnostics," the WHO stated.

What's happening globally?
As of Nov. 29, the Omicron variant has been identified in 16 countries: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and the United Kingdom.

The African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT) and Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) have been focusing on speeding up the rollout of and access to vaccines in Africa. As of Nov. 19, over 90 million doses have been donated to Africa through AVAT and COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access (COVAX). Most of those donations were only sent out when necessary, with short notice and short shelf lives.

COVAX and AVAT are calling on other nations to send large donations to create a predictable supply and to reduce overall costs. In addition, by the time donations arrive in Africa, they should have a minimum of 10 weeks' shelf life (with limited exceptions) and provide recipient nations a minimum notice of four weeks regarding shipments.

Preparing for Omicron stateside
The CDC is continuously overseeing variants in the US and expects to identify Omicron rapidly once it enters the country. As of Nov. 29, neither Gov. Inslee nor Mayor Durkan nor the Washington Department of Health has released any statements regarding the emerging variant.

Public Health — Seattle & King County reported that 73% of all King County residents are fully vaccinated as of Nov. 23, and 80.2% have received at least one dose.

Everyone who's fully vaccinated and 18 years or older is eligible to receive a booster shot. For Johnson & Johnson recipients, it is recommended to receive a booster at least two months following the single dose, and Moderna and Pfizer recipients can receive a booster six months following the second dose in the series.

Vaccine booster doses provide continuous protection against the coronavirus. They were originally authorized for those who are high risk, but researchers found they also benefit those who are not at an increased risk for serious COVID-19-related illness.

In the United States, the Delta variant remains the dominant strain. Hospitalization rates are 10—22 times greater in unvaccinated adults, and long-haul COVID symptoms are reported by up to 50% of those who contract the virus.

According to the presidential proclamation, as of Nov. 26, there have been more than 47 million confirmed COVID-19 cases within the United States and more than 773,000 deaths.

Washington's Department of Health continues to encourage those who are eligible to become fully vaccinated. Many vaccination sites are accepting patients by appointment only. To schedule your COVID vaccination, visit https://vaccinelocator.doh.wa.gov/.