Covid: What do we know about the Omicron variant and should we be worried?

Three cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant have been detected in the UK.

The latest case was confirmed by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) on Sunday, who said the person tested positive for the variant after arriving in the UK and that the case is related to a trip to southern Africa.

UKHSA said the person was in Westminster in central London during his stay but is no longer in the UK. One of the previously reported cases is in Brentwood, Essex, while the other is in Nottingham, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.

The two cases are linked and there is also a link to travel to southern Africa.

At a press conference on Saturday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a series of measures in an attempt to curb the spread of Omicron in the UK.

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Meanwhile, countries around the world, including the UK, have been imposing travel restrictions on the region in a bid to halt or at least slow the spread of the variant that scientists fear could be more resistant to the protection they offer. vaccines.

The Omicron variant has been designated as one of "concern" by the World Health Organization (WHO), with a UK health official calling it the "worst we've seen so far".

The appearance of this variant has raised fears among some scientists that its significant number of mutations could be resistant to current vaccines, however, this has not yet been proven and experts have advised against panic.

A host of countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Israel, Brazil, Canada, Iran, Japan, Thailand, and the US, joined others, including the European Union and the United Kingdom, in imposing restrictions to the countries of southern Africa.

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So what do we know about the variant, formally named Omicron, which was first identified in southern Africa?

In which countries has the variant been detected?

The variant was first seen in Botswana on November 11.

It was first reported to WHO from South Africa on 24 November. In addition to two cases in the UK, the variant has also been identified in Belgium, Hong Kong, Israel, and Australia.

One case, identified in Hong Kong, involved a traveler returning from South Africa. Belgium confirmed the first European case on Friday.

On Saturday, Italy and Germany reported cases of the new variant.

An official from the German state of Hesse tweeted that the variant had likely arrived in the country after "typical Omicron mutations" were found in someone returning from South Africa.

And Australia reported two positive cases of the Omicron variant, among a group of 14 who arrived in Sydney from South Africa on Saturday.

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Separately, 13 people who arrived in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for the Omicron variant. They are among the 61 people who tested positive for the coronavirus on the two flights that arrived at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport; all passengers are currently isolated.

Positive cases of the variant have been recorded in South Africa after genomic sequencing.

Through laboratory analysis, genomic sequencing identifies the genetic makeup of a virus in order to detect new variants or mutations.

How fast is the Omicron variant spreading in South Africa?

Experts have said that there has been a rapid increase in the number of cases in South Africa in recent days.

"There has been an increase in South Africa in several provinces over the last few days," Deenan Pillay, professor of virology at University College London, told ITV News.

"Only a small proportion of new Covid infections go through genetic sequencing, so the numbers could be higher."

"But it is premature to be alarming. We will soon know if there is any evidence that this is spreading more generally," he added.

Detected cases of the Omicron variant are said to be increasing particularly rapidly in the South African provinces of Gauteng, Northwest and Limpopo.

Provincial health authorities remain on high alert, according to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases.