The new Omicron variant of the coronavirus is the “most divergent variant detected in significant numbers during the pandemic so far,” the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) has said.
In an assessment published this evening, the ECDC said the new variant, characterised by 30 changes, three small deletions, and one small insertion on the virus spike protein, “raises concerns that it may be associated with increased transmissibility, a significant reduction in vaccine effectiveness and increased risk for reinfections”.
The variant was first detected in samples collected on November 11 in Botswana and on November 14 in South Africa.
Since then, travel-related cases have also been reported in Belgium, Hong Kong, and Israel.
The ECDC also joined the World Health Organization in classifying B.1.1.529 as a "variant of concern".
However, given its only recent identification, the ECDC said there remains "considerable uncertainty" around the extent of its transmissibility, and its effect on those who have already been vaccinated.
That said, the ECDC believes the variant’s mutation profile is such that "partial immune escape is likely”.
Concluding its report, the ECDC committed to conducting further assessments of Omicron, saying that genomic surveillance “remains of utmost importance for early detection of the presence of this variant".
"At this stage, based on our experience with previous variants, we must be proactive and implement measures as a precaution to buy more time until we gain more knowledge,” ECDC Director Dr Andrea Ammon said.
“Due to the uncertainties involved with this situation, the timely reinforced implementation on nonpharmaceutical interventions is now more important than ever.”
The ECDC also recommended avoiding travel to and from the known affected areas, increased testing - with sequencing of confirmed cases - and contact tracing of cases with any epidemiological link to the affected areas.
In relation to the resurgence of the Delta variant seen in Europe in recent weeks, the ECDC said its advice was still that priority be given to vaccinating those with underlying health conditions, the elderly, and people who have not yet received any Covid jab.
It said EU member states should then consider providing a booster jab to all adults 18 years and older, provided at least six months have passed since they completed their initial vaccine course.