The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated the variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern (VOC), named Omicron, on the basis of advice from WHO’s Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (hereafter referred to as TAG-VE) on 26 November 2021. Following the group’s announcement an increasing number of countries are introducing temporary travel measures, including temporarily prohibiting the arrival of international travellers from Southern African countries and others where the new variant is being detected, including from South Africa, which first reported the variant to WHO on 24 November 2021.
WHO commends South Africa and Botswana for their capacities in surveillance and sequencing and for the speed and transparency with which they notified and shared information with the WHO Secretariat on the Omicron variant in accordance with the International Health Regulations (2005) (IHR). These actions have allowed other countries to rapidly adjust their response measures in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. WHO calls on all countries to follow the IHR (2005) and to show global solidarity in rapid and transparent information sharing and in a joint response to Omicron (as with all other variants), leveraging collective efforts to advance scientific understanding and sharing the benefits of applying newly acquired scientific knowledge and tools.
As noted in the WHO announcement, the Omicron 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. Current SARS-CoV-2 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) diagnostics continue to be effective in detecting this variant. A technical brief on the latest information on Omicron can be found here.
It is expected that the Omicron variant will be detected in an increasing number of countries as national authorities step up their surveillance and sequencing activities. WHO is closely monitoring the spread of the Omicron variant, and studies are ongoing to understand more about these mutations and their impact on transmissibility, virulence, diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines. The TAG-VE will continue to evaluate the Omicron variant, and WHO will communicate new findings with IHR States Parties and the public as needed.
While scientific research is underway to understand how the variant behaves, WHO advises the following:
Essential international travel –including travel for emergency and humanitarian missions, travel of essential personnel, repatriations and cargo transport of essential supplies–should continue to be prioritized at all times during the COVID-19 pandemic.
*This paragraph was revised to align with Technical considerations for implementing a risk-based approach to international travel in the context of COVID-19: Interim guidance, 2 July 2021
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