The identification of a new Covid “variant of concern,” dubbed omicron, sparked countries to quickly roll out new travel restrictions as scientists work to understand the implications of the discovery.
On Friday, the World Health Organization said that preliminary evidence suggested “an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other [variants of concern].”
WHO said the number of cases of the variant appeared to be rising in almost all provinces in South Africa, where it was first identified. It also said the variant had been detected “at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.”
Here’s what we know about how variants develop and what makes one a “variant of concern.”
The new Covid variant was first detected recently in South Africa, with the country’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla saying scientists were concerned by its discovery due to its high number of mutations and its swift spread among young people in Gauteng, the most populous province in the country.
Speaking at an online press briefing on Thursday, Phaahla said South Africa had seen “an exponential rise” in cases over the span of four to five days and warned that the new variant appeared to be driving the surge.
Within days of the variant being identified, several countries said they found cases of B.1.1.529, now named omicron. Infections have been reported in Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.