COVID – Omicron VOC [Variant of Concern]

COVID – Omicron VOC [Variant of Concern]

Coronavirus pandemic
WHO calls for balanced response to new virus variant
Growing evidence that Omicron has spread to Europe
Donato Paolo Mancini in London
Financial Times, 27 Nov 2021
The World Health Organization has called for a balanced global response to the Omicron coronavirus variant, saying countries which report cases of the new strain should not be penalised, as the South African scientists behind its discovery prepare to ship samples to labs worldwide.

The discovery of a new, highly mutated coronavirus variant in Botswana earlier this month has alarmed global health officials, as it appears to be behind a surge in cases in South Africa. The so-called Omicron variant displays preliminary characteristics that suggest it is able to reinfect patients and evade vaccines. It is not yet known whether it worsens symptoms.

A number of countries have imposed severe travel restrictions on the southern African region. Switzerland has also restricted travel from Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium, where two cases of the variant have been confirmed…

“We have countries that are reporting this information and we don’t want them to be further stigmatised,” Maria Van Kerkhove, the Covid-19 technical lead at WHO, told the Financial Times. “There needs to be a balance in the response.”

Asked whether travel bans were justified, Van Kerkhove said countries should increase surveillance for this variant and others, increase testing capacity and do “intelligent sequencing” that was “more geographically representative, covering more countries, and strategically testing, not just more, but strategic locations”. “

“We need people to have a measured approach to risk,” she said. “Delta is [still] circulating around the world and killing people around the world. We can’t forget how many people are infected with Delta.”…

Van Kerkhove stressed the WHO did not want people to panic, and that “there are already sharing agreements in place where the virus can be shared, so scientists can collaborate in real time” on studying the effect of vaccines and immune responses. Results were expected in two to three weeks at earliest, she said.

Van Kerkhove said this “could be” a December 2019/January 2020 moment, when the world first learned of the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China.

“South Africa presented to [the WHO] this week. We acted fast,” she said. “No regrets.”



Classification of Omicron (B.1.1.529): SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern – WHO
26 November 2021 Statement
The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) is an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assesses if specific mutations and combinations of mutations alter the behaviour of the virus. The TAG-VE was convened on 26 November 2021 to assess the SARS-CoV-2 variant: B.1.1.529.

The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on 24 November 2021. The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021.

This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant. Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation. Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.

There are a number of studies underway and the TAG-VE will continue to evaluate this variant. WHO will communicate new findings with Member States and to the public as needed.

Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a VOC, and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron.


As such, countries are asked to do the following:
enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants.
submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID.
report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infection to WHO through the IHR mechanism.
where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the VOC on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization, or other relevant characteristics.

Individuals are reminded to take measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19, including proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated.
For reference, WHO has working definitions for SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Interest (VOI) and Variant of Concern (VOC).


A SARS-CoV-2 VOI is a SARS-CoV-2 variant:
with genetic changes that are predicted or known to affect virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity, immune escape, diagnostic or therapeutic escape; AND
that has been identified as causing significant community transmission or multiple COVID-19 clusters, in multiple countries with increasing relative prevalence alongside increasing number of cases over time, or other apparent epidemiological impacts to suggest an emerging risk to global public health.

A SARS-CoV-2 VOC is a SARS-CoV-2 variant that meets the definition of a VOI (see above) and, through a comparative assessment, has been demonstrated to be associated with one or more of the following changes at a degree of global public health significance:
increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology; OR
increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation; OR
decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics



Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s Statement regarding the new SARS-COV-2 virus variant B.1.1.529
26 November 2021

CDC Statement on B.1.1.529 (Omicron variant)
Friday, November 26, 2021

CEPI Statement: Emergence of a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, B.1.1.529
Statement from CEPI CEO, Dr Richard Hatchett.
26 Nov 2021

Premier Alan Winde: Weekly digital press conference 26 Nov
26 Nov 2021
Media release by Premier Winde [Western Cape. South Africa] at his weekly digital press conference
“We urge our excellent scientists to provide clarity, as soon as possible, on the many unknowns regarding the newly identified variant”

We note with concern that a new variant, B.1.1.529, has been identified by scientists in South Africa. What is clear from the announcement made yesterday afternoon by our world-class scientists is that there are a number of unknowns regarding how this new variant will impact the pandemic in our province, our country and indeed, around the world.

This uncertainty is creating panic and unfortunately resulting in many countries taking precautionary, temporary steps by banning travel to South Africa and our region. This is a blow to our economy and will be felt most in our province, as our tourism and hospitality sector is highly reliant on international travellers over this peak season to sustain itself and create jobs.


That is why I urge our scientific community to act with urgency to provide this clarity so that this uncertainty can be removed and so that we can, through clear data and evidence, engage with the public and the international community with all factors being known. I know that they are working around the clock on this already and I thank them for this.

For our residents, my main message to you is to not panic but to increase your vigilance during this time. If you have not yet been vaccinated, now is the time to do it, especially if you are 50 years and older or have comorbidities. We know that the virus spreads through the air, and so also be mindful of your airspace, by ensuring good ventilation, being outdoors more, and wearing a mask…