Omicron COVID Variant, With Worrying Mutations, Detected in These Countries

The World Health Organization (WHO) designated the COVID variant B.1.1.529 a variant of concern giving it the name "Omicron" on November 26.

Currently, it seems that the Omicron variant is highly divergent with a high number of mutations, some of which are concerning as they could be associated with an increased possibility of escaping immune responses.

The variant was detected in South Africa on November 25, where The New York Times reported that it seems to be spreading rapidly. WHO has said that it is currently investigating if the variant is highly transmittable and assessing its ability to evade immunity conferred by vaccines.

Following the identification of the Omicron variant, at least 44 countries, including the United States, the U.K, Canada, and Singapore, acted to restrict travel from southern African countries.

Japan, Israel and Morocco all imposed more drastic travel restrictions, with Japan and Israel halting entry to all foreign visitors, and Morocco banning all incoming air travel.

Despite the rapid introduction of travel restrictions in an attempt to curtail the spread of Omicron, many countries outside southern Africa have already detected cases of the COVID variants.

The variant has been detected in at least 15 countries, including Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Australia and Israel with many of these cases associated with travelers. On Sunday, two cases of Omicron were detected in the Canadian province of Ontario in travelers from Nigeria.

At least nine cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the U.K. after six cases were detected in Scotland, the Scottish government announced on Monday morning. One of the infected individuals visited the country and subsequently left, the BBC reported.

On Sunday, France's Health Ministry announced that there were eight suspected Omicron variant cases. It is currently investigating the COVID infections suffered by travelers, who have all returned from southern Africa in the last two weeks, Reuters reported.

Hong Kong has also reported cases of the Omicron COVID variant as have South Africa, Botswana, the Czech Republic, Austria, Denmark, and Switzerland. There are no reported cases of Omicron in the U.S. at the time of writing.

The reason Omicron is so concerning is that it displays at least 50 mutations, and marks the first time many of these mutations have been seen in the same variant. Of these mutations, between 26 and 30 are on the spike protein that is responsible for attaching the COVID cell to cells in the human body.

This could mean that Omicron could be more successful at reinfecting people who have already had COVID and recovered as well making it better adapted at evading protection offered by vaccination.

WHO has said that there are questions about the transmissibility of Omicron and concerning the severity of the infection that it causes.

COVID testing
A passenger at Sydney Airport is tested for COVID. A new strain of COVID has been identified in various countries leading to travel restrictions. James D. Morgan/GETTY