Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organisation as Omicron, as it has around 30 different mutations – which is double the amount present in the Delta variant.
But how else is this new variant different from previous versions and how dangerous is it?
– When did it first appear?
UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana. A total of 59 samples have been uploaded on to the website so far.
Three samples are from Hong Kong, three are from Botswana and the rest are from South Africa.
On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium.
– Are there any cases in the UK?
Currently, there are no known cases in the UK.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported.
– Have any countries been put on the red list?
Yes. Flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe were suspended from midday on Friday and all six countries have been added to the red list.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons earlier on Friday that discussions are ongoing over whether or not extra countries should be added to the list.
– What does this mean for travellers?
The UK and Scottish governments and Northern Ireland Executive said on Thursday that UK and Irish residents who arrived in England between midday Friday and 4am Sunday, and who have been in the six countries within the last 10 days, must quarantine at home for 10 days and take NHS PCR tests on day two and day eight, even if they already have a lateral flow test booked.
Passengers – including UK and Irish residents – arriving from 4am Sunday will be required to book and pay for a Government-approved hotel and quarantine for 10 days. They must also take tests on day two and day eight.
Direct flights from the six nations to the UK are being temporarily banned until 4am on Sunday, once the quarantine hotels have been set up.
Since midday on Friday, non-UK and Irish residents who have visited the nations in the previous 10 days have been refused entry into England.
Residents in the Republic of Ireland will also have to undergo testing and quarantining if they have recently returned from South Africa. The government has announced Ireland is to align with the EU recommendation to apply the “emergency brake” and to discourage travel to or from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Other countries including Germany, Italy, France, Israel, Japan and Singapore have also restricted travel over the variant while the European Commission has recommended EU countries introduce an “emergency brake” on travel from affected countries.
– How is it different from the other variants?
Despite only being tracked for the past four days, the virus has been identified as having 30 different mutations already. By comparison, that is twice as many as the Delta variant, which has been the most prominent variant in the UK over the past few months.
The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “If we look at those mutations, there’s mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evade the immune response both from vaccines and from natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility.
“It’s a highly complex mutation, there’s also new ones that we have never seen before.”
– Will the vaccines protect people against it?
It’s too early to say. Work is under way to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will “almost certainly” make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines.
Experts have said vaccines can be tweaked to tackle new variants as they emerge.
– Has it been classed as a “variant of concern”?
Yes. On Friday evening, the World Health Organisation designated it a variant of concern and named it Omicron.
It follows UK ministers and scientists stating they are very concerned about the variant.
– How worried should we be about this variant?
There are fears that the virus transmits more easily and that it could be more deadly plus evade vaccines. However, scientists have said it is too early to confirm if all of these fears are correct.
They are eager to acquire live virus cultures so it can be examined, but this takes time. It can take seven to 10 days at least to grow enough virus that can be shared with other scientists so they can study how it mutates and changes.
Officials will now also have to wait for data to come from South Africa. The earliest they are expecting evidence to come through is two to three weeks, but it could be as long as four to six weeks.