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What We Know About the New COVID-19 Variant, Omicron

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Johannesburg/London: Authorities around the world have reacted with alarm to a new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa.

Britain, the European Union and India are among those announcing stricter border controls as scientists carry out tests to determine if the mutation is more transmissible or infectious than other variants, or is resistant to vaccines.

South African scientists detected a small number of the variant known as B.1.1.529 on Tuesday in samples taken from November 14 to November 16.

The country has identified about 100 cases of the variant, mostly from its most populated province, Gauteng, where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located.

Why is it worrying scientists?

All viruses – including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 – change over time. Most changes have little or no impact on their properties.

However, some changes may affect how easily they spread, their severity, or the performance of vaccines against them.

“This variant has drawn particular scrutiny because it has more than 30 mutations of the spike protein that viruses use to get into human cells,” UK health officials say.

That’s about double the number of the Delta variant and makes it substantially different from the original coronavirus that current COVID vaccines were designed to counteract.

South African scientists say some of the mutations are associated with resistance to neutralising antibodies and enhanced transmissibility, but others were not well understood, so its full significance is not yet clear.

UK Health Security Agency Chief Medical Advisor Susan Hopkins told BBC radio that some mutations had not been seen before so it was not known how they would interact with other ones, making it the most complex variant seen to date.

So more tests will be needed to confirm if it’s more transmissible, infectious or can evade vaccines.

The work will take a few weeks, the WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, Maria van Kerkhove, said on Thursday. In the meantime, vaccines remain a critical tool to contain the virus.

No unusual symptoms have been reported following infection with the B.1.1.529 variant and, as with other variants, some individuals are asymptomatic, South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said.

Where else has the variant been detected? 

South African scientists say early signs from diagnostic laboratories suggest it has spread rapidly in Gauteng and may already be present in the country’s other eight provinces.

South Africa’s daily infections nearly doubled on Thursday to 2,465. The NICD did not attribute the resurgence to the new variant, though local scientists suspect it is the cause.

Neighbouring Botswana said it had detected four cases, all foreigners who arrived on a diplomatic mission and have since left the country.

Hong Kong has one case, a traveller from South Africa, Israel also has one, a traveller returning from Malawi in southern Africa, while Belgium has detected Europe’s first case.

Scientists say early detection due to genomic surveillance in Botswana and South Africa may have limited the spread of the variant.

The international GISAID open database of coronavirus variants has 58 cases of B.1.1.529 registered in South Africa, six in Botswana and two in Hong Kong.

The variant is relatively easy to distinguish in PCR tests from the Delta variant, the dominant and most infectious COVID-19 mutation so far. Unlike the Delta variant, it has a mutation known as the S-gene drop-out.

However, this is not a unique identifier because the Alpha variant, first identified in Britain, also has that mutation.

How does the World Health Organization label variants?

The UN agency said on Friday its advisers recommended that the variant be designated one of concern, its most serious level, and it has been given the Greek name Omicron.

The latter label is applied if there is evidence that it is more contagious or more virulent or vaccines work less well against it, or has a combination of those characteristics, and it is given a Greek name, the WHO’s website says.

The WHO has identified four other variants of concern – Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

It has named two variants as ones of interest, which is the next level down: Lambda, identified in Peru in December 2020, and Mu, in Colombia in January.

That means they had genetic changes that are predicted or known to affect virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity or the ability to evade vaccines and drugs.

It would also mean it caused significant community transmission or multiple COVID-19 clusters in multiple countries with increasing relative prevalence alongside increasing number of cases over time and is an emerging risk to public health.

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Covid-19: International travellers landing in Lucknow to undergo 8-day mandatory home quarantine | Lucknow News

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LUCKNOW: All the international travellers coming to Lucknow from Monday onward will have to quarantine themselves at home for eight days.
Furthermore, all international and domestic passengers arriving at the Chaudhary Charan Singh airport will have to undergo mandatory but free RT-PCR testing now.
Domestic passengers will be screened first and will be tested if found symptomatic for Covid-19 infection. Besides, random sampling among domestic passengers will be done at the airport.
These orders were issued by district magistrate Abhishek Prakash on Sunday to check the spread of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus, which has been declared a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation.
The DM said that the Integrated Covid Command and Control Centre (ICCC) will constantly remain in touch with these travellers through phone calls during the isolation period.
After eight days, these travellers will be tested again through the RT-PCR method. The quarantine period will be over, if the test report comes negative, but in case of a positive result, they will either be hospitalised or will have to be in home isolation for 10 more days.
Chief Medical Officer Dr Manoj Agarwal said that health department teams will also visit houses of those in self isolation to check whether they are following the norm or not.
The DM order also said that all the flyers, both domestic and international, will have to declare their 15-day travel history at the airport. “The names, address and phone numbers of all the travellers will also be noted at the airport itself so that ICCC can keep track of their status in future,” he said.
The DM said that about 1,800 international and 4,500 domestic travellers arrive daily at the airport. These travellers come from different places, including Mumbai, Hyderabad, Goa, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Dubai, Sharjah, Muscat, Abu Dhabi, Jordan, Kuwait and Jeddah.
Samples of those testing positive, domestic or international travellers, will be sent for genome sequencing.
All major hospitals in the city have been asked by the health department to get the RT-PCR test done of all the patients who have recent international travel history.

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55 fully vaccinated inmates of Thane old age home test COVID-19 positive along with 7 others- The New Indian Express

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By PTI

THANE: Fifty-five fully vaccinated inmates of an old age home in Maharashtra’s Thane district and seven others have tested positive for coronavirus and all of them have been admitted to a civil hospital here, officials said on Sunday.

Of the seven others, five are employees of the old age home and two others are their family members, including a one-and-a-half-year-old girl, they said.

Following this, the district administration has declared Sorgaon village in Bhiwandi tehsil, where the facility is located, as a containment zone.

“After complaints of ill-health by a couple of inmates, a team of doctors had on Saturday tested 109 persons at the ‘Matoshree’ old age home located at Khadavali,” district health officer Dr Manish Renge told PTI.

Out of them, the results of 61 came out positive, he said, adding that another inmate had tested positive for the viral infection on Friday. “All of them have been admitted to the Thane Civil Hospital for treatment,” he said.

The district administration said in a statement that out of the total 62 persons – 37 males and 25 females – who have tested positive, 55 are inmates of the old age home, all of them above 60 years of age, five are its staff members and two others are the family members of these employees.

“The two infected family members of the employees are a one-and-a-half-year-old girl and a pregnant woman,” it said.

Out of all the patients, 41 are suffering from co-morbidities, it said, adding that of the total number of infected persons, 30 are asymptomatic.

Five other suspected patients from the old age home have also been admitted to the hospital, the district administration said.

“All the 55 inmates have already taken two jabs and four employees are also full vaccinated. Only one patient has not taken even a single dose so far,” it said, adding that the samples of 15 patients have been sent for genome sequencing.

Sorgaon village, which has a population of 1,130 with 343 houses, has been declared as a containment zone and other local residents are also being surveyed, it said.

The district administration is keeping a tab on the health of the patients and taking due steps to check further spread of the infection, Dr Renge said.

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