It has only been a few days since the scientific community detected the new mutated B 1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 in a patient in the South African province of Gauteng. However, the findings so far on this variant have been enough to put the entire international community on alert.
The World Health Organisation convened an emergency meeting yesterday, Friday, in Geneva, where several experts from the institution gathered to evaluate this new strain and decide whether it should be considered a variant of "concern". Although several countries have already announced travel restrictions, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a press conference that they should not take hasty action. "The World Health Organisation recommends that countries continue to apply a scientific approach based on risk assessment when implementing restrictions," the spokesman advised.
So far, more than 100 people have been infected with the "omicron" variant (almost all of them in South Africa), although it is suspected that the number could be much higher. In addition, other cases have been reported in Botswana - another of the first countries to detect the strain -, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, which has become the first European country to confirm a case of this variant.
The risks posed by the spread of this new strain are not yet fully clear, the WHO spokesman warned, noting that it will take "several weeks" to understand these issues. However, about 100 sequences of the variant have already been reported, and initial analyses have shed light on some of the mutations. The most important are those relating to the "spicular protein" or "spike protein", which is responsible for allowing the virus to enter our cells, and which has undergone at least 32 mutations. This, as seen in the Delta variant, may translate into increased transmissibility of the disease along with a superior ability to escape the human body's defences.
"The new variant carries a number of mutations that have been seen before, but not in combination. The fact that we see them together is what elevates it to 'variant under surveillance'. Not so much because there is data that it is actually more transmissible or puts the immune system in trouble, but because it could have the potential to do so," Iñaki Comas, a biologist at the Institute of Biomedicine in Valencia, told El País newspaper.
Now, according to the British Health Safety Agency's statement on the mutation in the spicular protein (which is the basis of how current vaccines work), what worries the scientific community is whether these vaccines will be less effective. Some experts such as Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick Medical School, argue that this variant will not find it difficult to evade COVID-19 vaccine immunity.
Meanwhile, the rest of the world has already begun to take precautionary measures, particularly in relation to restrictions on travel from South African countries.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, meeting with a council of experts, decided on Friday to ban air travel between Israel and most African countries. "We are now on the verge of an emergency," the minister said in a statement from his office. "Our fundamental principle is to act swiftly, decisively and immediately. It is worth noting that the Hebrew territory is one of the countries that, so far, has already confirmed cases of the new variant.
Other countries such as Bahrain, Croatia, India and Japan are already banning flights to countries in the region and tightening entry restrictions for their own citizens returning from South African territories.
Similarly, within the European Union, seven countries have already suspended flights - at least - to South Africa and Botswana. In addition, some territories such as Italy have extended the measure to all travellers who have visited southern Africa during the last 14 days. UK health minister Sajid Javid also declared a ban on "all flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Swaziland, Zimbabwe and Botswana from midday on Friday".
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced on her Twitter account the proposal, in close cooperation with member states, to "activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the Southern African region due to concerns about variant B.1.1.529".
In fact, perhaps in anticipation of these common guidelines that envisage a closure of the external border - the so-called "emergency brake" - the Spanish Health Minister, Carolina Darias, announced yesterday the suspension of flights "from South Africa and Botswana". This measure will be taken to the Council of Ministers next Tuesday.
However, as WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom warned last July, the international community cannot function by pursuing national protection alone. The coronavirus has already infected some 260 million people, and has claimed the lives of more than 5.4 million people worldwide. The head of the international organisation advocates a coordinated work of all territories, and calls for the abandonment of positions such as "vaccine nationalism". This term, coined by Adhanom himself, refers to the monopoly of rich countries over vaccines against the virus, forgetting that, as long as vaccination is not also given in the most disadvantaged regions, new and more resistant strains will continue to appear and "win the race against vaccines".
Against this backdrop, the World Health Organisation yesterday announced the start of a three-day meeting, starting next Monday, which will aim to finalise a pact to strengthen its capacity to deal with future pandemics.