November 26, 2021 11:47 AM EST

A new variant of SARS-CoV-2 first reported in South Africa is raising alarms for health officials around the world, leading to fresh travel restrictions amid fears it could be resistant to existing vaccines.

Researchers in South Africa conducting genetic analysis of COVID-19 virus cases determined that a new variant, B.1.1.529, had been found in cases in South Africa, Botswana, and a traveler who had traveled from South Africa to Hong Kong, the country’s health minister announced on Nov. 25. The following day, Belgian health officials reported the first case of the new variant discovered in Europe. That same day, the World Health Organization declared the B.1.1.529 a variant of concern, and added it to the growing list of such viruses, labeling it Omicron.

President Biden announced travel restrictions to and from the U.S. and South African countries “as a precautionary measure.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor on COVID-19 to the White House and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN U.S. researchers will be speaking with their South African colleagues “to find out scientist to scientist to exactly what is going on.”

Why this variant is worrying

What makes the variant especially concerning is the number of mutations, up to 30, that South African scientists reported in the spike protein, which is the main target for currently available vaccines and drug therapies. The changes make the protein look different enough from the original that scientists are worried about whether existing vaccines can still protect against disease. Researchers will now be rushing to determine how easily the new variant spreads, and whether it can indeed escape vaccine protection.

So far, scientists have said that the existing vaccines continue to protect against severe disease, and the shots have helped to lower hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in areas where coverage is high. But large numbers of people around the world still aren’t vaccinated, either because they can’t access doses, or are hesitant to get immunized. That contributes to a steady stream of new infections, which provide the virus new opportunities to mutate, and public health experts have been wary of new variants that could escape vaccine-protection.

How the world is reacting

Until researchers learn more about the latest variant, health officials and political leaders aren’t taking any chances, as the world prepares for a busy holiday travel season. The U.K. immediately banned flights from six African countries — South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe — and instituted a mandatory 10-day quarantine for any travelers entering the U.K. from those countries. U.K. health minister Sajid Javid said the variant is of “huge international concern.”

Belgian health authorities said one case of the new variant, in an unvaccinated traveler who had returned from abroad, had appeared in the country. As a precaution, the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyden said in a statement that flights from South African nations “should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant.” Cases in the bloc have been spiking in recent weeks due to low vaccination rates and greater density of people in public areas.

In the U.S., among the first priorities for researchers will be getting more details about the molecular features of the virus that will allow them to develop a test to start looking for the variant in this country, as well as challenge the variant in the lab with antibodies made by vaccinated people or those who recovered from COVID-19 to determine if those antibodies continue to neutralize the virus.

Ahead of those results, vaccine makers are already considering developing a vaccine aimed specifically at the new variant. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines rely on mRNA technology, which is flexible enough to allow scientists to create a new vaccine incorporating the new variant’s genetic signature in a matter of about six weeks, and start testing the shot in a few months.

 

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