UN health chiefs warned that preliminary evidence suggests the strain has an increased risk of reinfection and could spread more rapidly than the Delta variant.
‘Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology… the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern, named Omicron,’ the UN health agency said in a statement.
The Omicron variant has more than 30 mutations — the most ever recorded in a variant and twice as many as Delta — meaning it could be more jab-resistant and transmissible that any version before it.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there is ‘huge international concern’ surrounding the strain after banning flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia to limit its spread.
He told MPs there are concerns the variant may be more transmissible, make vaccines less effective and may affect one of the UK’s Covid treatments, Ronapreve.
Belgium today revealed a case of the Omicron variant, sparking fears of a new Christmas shutdown and prompting EU chiefs to call for an ’emergency brake’ on all travel from southern Africa after it was also found in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
The Belgian health ministry said a case of the new Omicron strain was confirmed in an unvaccinated young woman who had returned from Egypt 11 days ago, suggesting it is already being seeded across the continent and is widespread in Africa.
Professor John Edmunds, who advises the Government as part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), warned that could create a ‘very, very, very difficult situation’.
The EU followed Britain’s move to ban flights from the six African nations ahead of the WHO adding the Omicron strain to its highest category for concerning variants. Boris Johnson spoke to South African president Cyril Ramaphosa tonight to discuss the situation.
The strain was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on November 24 but the specimen was from a case collected on November 9.
The World Health Organisation (pictured, Director General World Health Organization Tedros Ghebreyesus) has named the recently-discovered B.1.1.529 strain of Covid-19 Omicron and labelled it a ‘variant of concern’
Boris Johnson held a call with South Africa’s president Cyril Ramaphosa this afternoon after foreign minister Naledi Pandor said the flight ban ‘seems to have been rushed’.
The Prime Minister ‘commended South Africa’s rapid genomic sequencing’ and its ‘leadership in transparently sharing scientific data’, Downing Street said.
‘They discussed the challenges posed globally by the new Covid-19 variant and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel,’ a statement said.
Prof Edmunds said the new strain ‘is a huge worry’ and that ‘all the data suggests’ it would be able to evade current immunity.
‘Our fears are it would do so to a large extent,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.
Prof Edmunds urged ministers to look at extending travel restrictions and to prepare a plan to deal with Omicron because ‘at some point we’re going to get this variant here in the UK’.
He suggested mass testing and local restrictions must be looked at while other preparations could include making the booster programme more rapid, perhaps by reducing the gap between second and third doses, and widening it to younger age groups.
‘Even the vaccines don’t work particularly well against this new variant, they do against Delta, and we’re still fighting a Delta wave and we certainly don’t want to be fighting both at the same time,’ he said.
‘There are things we can do and we need to get on with it very rapidly.’
However, Angelique Coetzee, the chairwoman of the South African Medical Association, said that it was too early to begin imposing travel restrictions.
‘It’s a hasty decision,’ she told the BBC. ‘I would understand if it was two weeks later and we knew much more about this viral infection that is going around, this mutation.
‘But for now, it is a storm in a tea cup, we have only become aware of this viral mutation … in the last week. So far what we have seen are very mild cases, so I’m not sure why we are all up in arms.’
Passengers flying to the Netherlands from South Africa were banned from getting off the plane as the continent tightened its borders in an attempt to shut out the strain which scientists have described as the ‘worst variant ever’. They were eventually let off the runway after being forced to take a test and leave their details with contact tracers.
By contrast, British arrivals from the variant’s epicentre Johannesburg were left to mingle with hundreds of others as they flew into Heathrow on the last flights out of Africa before the red list was re-imposed at noon. Passengers flying into Heathrow revealed they were not tested or questioned about their travel history.
It comes as Britain’s daily Covid cases breached 50,000 today for the first time in a month and deaths crept up by 2 per cent in a week – but hospital admissions were down 12 per cent.
Israel has also detected a case in a vaccinated individual, meaning it has now been confirmed in three continents. The Israeli had returned from Malawi. Two other suspected cases are being investigated.
In a glimmer of hope, the South African Medical Association said that all cases of the Botswana variant had been in young people and caused only mild illness. It described the global response as a ‘storm in a teacup’.
Angelique Coetzee, the chairwoman of the South African Medical Association, said that it was too early to begin imposing travel restrictions
This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the Omicron variant (blue) and Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) over time in Guateng province in South Africa, where the virus is most prevalent. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks
The above slide shows variants that have been detected by province in South Africa since October last year. It suggests Omicron is focused in Gauteng province. This was presented at a briefing today from the South African Government
The above shows the test positivity rate — the proportion of tests that picked up the virus — across Gauteng province. It reveals that there is an uptick of cases in the northern part of the province. It is not clear whether this could be driven by Omicron
A flight from South Africa to the Netherlands was barred entry into the country today. Passengers are pictured above waiting in their seats
Passengers on last flights back from South Africa say they faced no extra restrictions
Passengers arriving into the UK on one of the last flights from South Africa have revealed they were not offered tests and left to mix with hundreds of others despite mounting concern over the new variant.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has announced that flights from South Africa – as well as Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe – will be suspended from midday. They have all been placed on the red list.
But passengers arriving from Johannesburg – the capital of the province of Gauteng where the variant was first identified – were subjected to ‘no additional precautions’, according to one of the people on the flight – one of three arriving at Heathrow before the ban comes into force.
Writer and political commentator Adam Schwarz tweeted: ‘A friend arrived in London this morning on one of the last flights from South Africa. Health officials met the plane, but no additional precautions are being taken for the hundreds of passengers.
‘The captain read out a statement ”advising” self-isolation and further tests. But it’s at the discretion of passengers and it’s not legally enforceable. Passengers then got on the airport shuttle to baggage reclaim, mixing with dozens of other flights. No testing was offered.’
Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned the pandemic was ‘far from over’ after No10’s experts admitted the new super strain could already be in the UK and make vaccines 40 per cent less effective.
In a sombre statement to MPs in the House of Commons this morning, the Health Secretary said the new Omicron strain posed a ‘substantial risk to public health’ and described its ultra-transmissibility and vaccine-dodging abilities as of ‘huge international concern’.
Vaccines adviser Professor Adam Finn earlier raised the prospect of lockdown curbs being reintroduced, warning that people must be braced for a ‘change in restrictions’ if the variant spreads to the UK.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser of the UK’s Health and Security Agency (UKHSA), warned it was ‘possible’ the strain had already entered Britain. She said people ‘are arriving every day’ to the UK from countries where the strain had been spotted.
Some 10,000 people are thought to have arrived from South Africa alone in the last two weeks where the most cases of the mutant strain have been found. Mr Javid insisted no cases of the strain have been confirmed in the UK but warned the Government is working quickly but with a ‘high degree of uncertainty’ and boosters could not be more important now.
Top experts said that if the strain spreads faster and can avoid current jabs it ‘will get here’. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps suggested that the aim of the travel restrictions is to ‘slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country’.
In response, Mr Javid announced last night that flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe would be suspended from midday Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list.
Israel was the first country to follow suit, also red-listing the six nations after a first case was detected in the country today. The European Commission has recommended an ’emergency brake’ on travel from countries in Southern Africa.
Speaking in the House of Commons this morning, Mr Javid said it ‘is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries’.
He said: ‘We are concerned that this new variant may pose substantial risk to public health. The variant has an unusual large number of mutations. It’s the only variant with this designation, making it higher priority than Beta. It shares many of the features of the Alpha, Beta and Delta variants.
‘Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it. It may also impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments, Ronapreve.’
The Health Secretary added the Government is continuing to assess its travel restrictions with countries with strong links to South Africa and urged the public to book their booster doses as soon as possible.
He said: ‘We are continuing to make assessments, including about those countries with strong travel links to South Africa and we’re working with our international partners — including South Africa and the European Union — to ensure an aligned response.
‘But this variant is a reminder for all of us that this pandemic is far from over. We must continue to act with caution, and do all we can to keep this virus at bay including, once you are eligible, getting your booster shot.
‘We’ve already given over 16 million booster shots. The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant – but now, it could not be more important.’
Earlier, Dr Susan Hopkins told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘The first look at it shows it has a variety of different mutations, it’s got 30 different mutations that seem relevant, that’s double what we had in Delta.
‘And if you look at those mutations as mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evades the immune response, both from vaccines and natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility, it’s a highly complex mutation, there’s new ones we haven’t seen before, so we don’t know how they’re going to interact in common.
‘So all of this makes it a pretty complex, challenging variant and I think we will need to learn a lot more about it before we can say for definite it’s definitely the most complex variant before.’
She added: ‘It is the most worrying we’ve seen.’
No cases have been detected in the UK so far but everyone who has returned from South Africa in the past 10 days will be contacted and asked to take a test.
At the moment, around 500 and 700 people are travelling to the UK from South Africa each day, but it is expected this figure could increase as the festive period begins.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘If it spreads more quickly then yes it will get here, the travel ban will delay its arrival but if it spreads more quickly the lesson has surely been from all the variants we’ve seen before that it will get here eventually.
‘We shouldn’t despair, vaccines will be effective, so if you haven’t had your vaccine go and get it, be that the booster, the first dose, the second dose.
‘Secondly there are new medicines coming along… these will not be affected almost certainly by this mutation.
‘We have got much better at controlling the disease in other ways in hospital so it is bad news but it is not doomsday.’
Professor Finn said: ‘On the one hand, I don’t want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions.’
In a round of interviews this morning, Mr Shapps said the Government is taking a ‘safety-first approach’ to the new variant.
‘It is important to make sure that you do act immediately and in doing so you get to slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country,’ he told Sky News.
‘That gives us a bit of time for the scientists to work on sequencing the genome, which involves growing cultures – it takes several weeks to do – so we can find out how significant a concern this particular variant is.
‘It is a safety-first approach. We have done that before with things like the mink variant from Denmark and we were then able to relax it reasonably quickly.’
The chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency said the new variant is the most ‘complex’ and ‘worrying’ seen.
Announcing the travel ban last night, Mr Javid said: ‘The early indication we have of this variant is it may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective against it.
A baby cries as her mother receives her Pfizer vaccine against COVID-19, in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg, South Africa
‘Now to be clear, we have not detected any of this new variant in the UK at this point in time. But we’ve always been clear that we will take action to protect the progress that we have made.
From discovery to global panic in 48 hours: How the Covid super-mutant variant sparked frantic cabinet meeting and worldwide travel ban
A nationwide lockdown looked likely for the first time in months today after the world reeled at the prospect of a mutant virus that was unheard of just days ago and threatens to put Britain back to square one of the pandemic.
Researchers in Hong Kong were the first to raise the alarm about the new strain on Monday after discovering the strain in two passengers who had recently returned from South Africa.
It was also picked up in Botswana, where it was sequenced three times, and South Africa — who had only seen one case at the time.
Scientists from all three countries uploaded it to an international database of variants used by experts from across the world, including the UK.
Dr Tom Peacock, a British virologist at Imperial College London who works with the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), voiced concern about the strain’s 32 ‘horrific’ mutations — twice as many as Delta — on Tuesday.
MailOnline broke the news about the variant on Wednesday, when No10’s official spokesperson shrugged it off as ‘not seen as something that is an issue’, despite fears that it would be more vaccine evasive than Delta.
Experts told MailOnline the strain’s large amount of mutations meant it could become unstable — meaning it would be unlikely to become widespread — although others warned if it started taking over the dominant Delta variant in South Africa it could have knock-on effects for the rest of the world.
Behind the scenes, MailOnline understands there were ‘extensive talks’ between British Government scientists and those in South Africa on Wednesday and Thursday.
Cases began to grow exponentially in the Guateng Province in South Africa on Thursday, with a particular spike in Johannesburg, where they shot up 93 per cent in a single day.
The South African Government held a press conference on Thursday, saying that they are ‘concerned by the jump in evolution in this variant’.
British ministers were called to an emergency meeting of the Covid Operations Cabinet Committee on Thursday, chaired by Cabinet Office minister Steven Barclay, to discuss shutting Britain’s borders to travellers from Africa.
They were told vaccines would be at least 40 per cent less effective against the variant — because of a mutation it shares with the original South African Beta variant — at the meeting.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid attended the meeting but Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the housing minister, were not part of discussions.
It was set up due to concerns raised by England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty and UKHSA boss Dr Jenny Harries.
A Government source said: ‘Whitty and the experts said we needed to act. They wanted to get it out as soon as possible.’
Insiders stressed they were acting out of an ‘abundance of caution’. The issue only came on the radar at No10 on Wednesday. ‘We have moved more quickly than with previous decisions,’ one source said.
Later, senior UK Government scientists briefed the media at a hastily organised press conference last night at 7.45pm.
‘So what we will be doing is from midday tomorrow we will be suspending all flights from six, southern African countries and we will add in those countries to the travel red list.
‘Those countries are South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana. We will be requiring anyone that arrives from those countries from 4am on Sunday to quarantine in hotels.
‘If anyone arrives before then they should self-isolate at home and take a PCR test on day two and day eight. If anyone has arrived from any of those countries over the last 10 days, we would ask them to take PCR tests.’
The minister added: ‘Our scientists are deeply concerned about this variant. I’m concerned, of course, that’s one of the reasons we have taken this action today.’
Asked what the situation would mean for the UK over the coming weeks, with Christmas approaching, Mr Javid said: ‘We’ve got plans in place, as people know, for the spread of this infection here in the UK and we have contingency plans – the so-called Plan B.
‘But today’s announcement, this is about a new variant from South Africa – it’s been detected in South Africa and Botswana – and this is about being cautious and taking action and trying to protect, as best we can, our borders.’
South African scientists, meanwhile, add that they are ‘concerned by the jump in evolution in this variant’.
He said that more work was needed to understand how concerning the variant is, adding: ‘From what we do know there’s a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant.
‘That would suggest that it may well be more transmissible and the current vaccines that we have may well be less effective.’
South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement today that the UK’s decision to ban flights ‘seems to have been rushed’.
She said: ‘Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organisation is yet to advise on the next steps.
‘Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries.’
The variant has not yet been given the title ‘variant of concern’ in the UK, but one senior UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) expert said: ‘This is the worst variant we have seen so far.’
Only 59 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.
The variant has over 30 mutations – around twice as many as the Delta variant – which could potentially make it more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.
The expert whose modelling helped instigate the first coronavirus lockdown said that the decision to impose travel restrictions was ‘prudent’.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: ‘The B.1.1.529 [Omicron] variant has an unprecedented number of mutations in the spike protein gene, the protein which is the target of most vaccines.
‘There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants.
‘It is also concerning that this variant appears to be driving a rapid increase in case numbers in South Africa. The Government’s move to restrict travel with South Africa is therefore prudent.
‘However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 [Omicron] might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses.’
Experts from the UKHSA have been advising ministers on the issue, with a number of scientists expressing serious concern over the variant due to the significant number of mutations in the spike protein.
One senior scientist said: ‘One of our major worries is this virus spike protein is so dramatically different to the virus spike that was in the original Wuhan strain, and therefore in our vaccines, that it has a great cause of concern.’
Experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are meeting with South African officials on Friday to assess the evolving situation in the country.
The variant could eventually be given the moniker ‘Nu’ – with the most concerning variants given named after the Greek alphabet.
The original Red List was reduced to zero nations at the end of last month when the remaining seven countries on it were removed.
No10 had left the door open to bringing back the notorious traffic light travel system with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps saying last month hundreds of hotel rooms were still on standby for quarantine.
The UKHSA said it had been in extensive talks with scientists in South Africa about the new variant but the situation is ‘rapidly evolving’.
Although only 100 cases of the new variant have so far been identified, it is already in three countries, suggesting it is more widespread than the official tally.
Two cases have been detected in Hong Kong – both of whom had links to South Africa –three have been picked up in Botswana and the remainder are in South Africa.
But a lack of surveillance on continental Africa may be underestimating the true numbers there, scientists warned.
UK experts say it will be another two to eight weeks until they can study the variant in enough detail to work out how infectious or vaccine-resistant it is.
Nationally, infections in South Africa have surged tenfold from 100 per day to 1,100, after the variant was first detected in neighbouring Botswana on November 11.
UK Government scientists believe it can infect previously-infected patients with ease, because South Africa has very high levels of natural immunity.
Only 41 percent of adults have received at least a single dose of vaccine, while 35 percent are fully vaccinated.
In a hastily organised press conference today, the South African Government revealed the variant had been officially spotted in three provinces but warned it was probably already in all nine.
Experts in the UK earlier called for travel restrictions to be reimposed to prevent the strain being seeded here and avoid risking a repeat of this spring when the Delta variant was imported in huge numbers from India.
Zero-Covid scientist Professor Christina Pagel urged ministers to ‘get ahead of this right now’ by immediately’ reimposing the red travel list ‘ — which was only scrapped a few weeks ago.
And Chris Snowdon, an economist who is normally in favour of fewer restrictions, also called for an immediate travel ban.
The Government has left the door open to bringing back the notorious traffic light travel system with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps saying last month hundreds of hotel rooms were still on standby for quarantine.
MailOnline first sounded the alarm about the variant yesterday after British scientists warned that it had more than 30 mutations and is the most evolved version of Covid yet. They said it likely emerged in a long-term infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.
The fact that South Africa has the largest number of people living HIV out of any country in the world has complicated its fight against Covid, as immuno-compromised people can harbour the virus for longer, scientists say.
It comes as Britain’s daily Covid cases began to flatline yesterday, official data showed after weeks of falling deaths and hospitalisations. This was the first time the percentage jump was below one since November 10.
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, said the variant could become dominant in South Africa ‘very quickly’.
Asked whether it could soon make up the majority of cases in South Africa, he told MailOnline: ‘The numbers [of cases] are very small and there is a lot of uncertainty… but I would say it might become dominant very quickly.’
He said it was ‘plausible’ that the variant was more infectious because it was ‘better at infecting’ people that had immunity from vaccines or previous infections.
But he said very little is known about how likely someone who catches the variant would be to become seriously ill and die from the virus. Experts say viruses normally become less virulent over time.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, a director of Covid surveillance in the South African province of KwaZulu-Natal, said that the variant had spread rapidly in South Africa.
‘In less than two weeks it now dominates all infections following a devastating Delta wave in South Africa.
‘We estimate that 90 per cent of cases in Gauteng (at least 1,000 a day) [are this variant].’