Another variant of Covid-19 has been detected in Africa. The B.1.1.529 variant, which has been officially named “Omicron”, has caused concern over its “unusual constellation of mutations”. Researchers are now racing to track the concerning rise of this new variant and work out whether it has the potential to dodge some of the protection given by vaccines.

There is a lot of speculation but here is what you need to know so far:  

Where has this variant been discovered? 

The new variant, also known as B1.1.529, was first spotted in Botswana on the 11 November and on Monday, officials recorded four cases in people who were fully vaccinated. In South Africa, the first case was detected on the 14 November, and as of yesterday, almost 100 cases had been detected. Early PCR tests reveal that 90% of 1,100 cases reported on Wednesday in one South African province were caused by the new variant. 

An additional case was also found in Hong Kong, which came from a traveller from South Africa who tested positive three days into quarantine. 

Israeli said today that it has detected its first case of the variant in a person who had returned from Malawi. 

And most recently, according to local media reports, two suspected cases of the new variant have also been detected in Belgium. If confirmed, Belgium will become the first European country to detect the new variant.

Where did it come from?

There has been speculation that the mutation possibly emerged from an immunocompromised  patient (someone with an impaired immune system) who had the virus for an extended period of time, and potentially from someone with undiagnosed HIV/AIDS (South Africa has 8.2 million people infected with HIV, the most in the world). 

Professor Francois Balloux, The Director of the Genetics Institute at University College London, said that the variant’s mutations are in “an unusual constellation” that “accumulated apparently in a single burst.” He believes this indicates that the variant could have evolved during a “chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDs patient.”

The beta variant, a mutation identified last year in South Africa, may have also come from an HIV-infected person. 

What’s so different about this variant?

Experts have said that coming from the B.1.1 lineage, the Omicron variant has an “incredibly high” number of mutations in its spike protein (32 mutations to be exact), with fears that it is highly transmissible and effective at evading the body’s immune response. Prof Tulio de Oliveira, the Director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, said it was an “unusual constellation of mutations” and that it was “very different” to other variants that have circulated.

These 32 mutations can make the spike protein less identifiable to our antibodies. Consequently, they will not be as effective at neutralising the virus, which can bypass immune defences and cause infection. 

There are concerns in Whitehall that this variant could be worse than Delta (which was more than twice as transmissible as the Wuhan strain), which could mean new variant vaccines are developed. According to Tom Whipple, science editor of The Times, these take weeks to develop rather than a year, but they are still unlikely to be ready to stop a wave once it begins. 

How concerned are scientists?

There are mixed views on how concerned we should be about the latest variant. Viruses change all the time, and mutations are to be expected. Professor Balloux said today there is no reason to get overly concerned and that it was difficult to predict how transmissible it may be at the stage. He explained: “For the time being, it should be closely monitored and analysed, but there is no reason to get overly concerned, unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future.” 

Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, said that the variant “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile” which could mean that it is more contagious than any other variant so far. He said: “Export to Asia implies this might be more widespread than sequences alone would imply.” He added: “The extremely long branch length and incredibly high amount of spike mutations suggest this could be of real concern (predicted escape from most known monoclonal antibodies).” 

Nevertheless, Dr Peacock said he still hopes that the variant will turn out to be one of an “odd cluster” and that it will not be as transmissible as feared. 

How has the UK responded? 

In a statement to the House of Commons, the health secretary Sajid Javid has said that the emergence of the variant was of “huge international concern” and that it could pose a “substantial risk to public health.” It is highly likely that the strain has spread outside the African countries where it is believed to have developed, but Javid told MPs that there had not yet been a case detected in the UK. 

“The variant has an unusually large number of mutations,” Javid said. “Yesterday, the UK Health Security Agency classified B1.1.529, as a new variant under investigation, and the Variant Technical group has designated it as a variant under investigation with very high priority. It’s the only variant with this designation, making it a higher priority than beta. It shares many of the features of Alpha, Beta, and Delta variants.”

He added: “Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, and current vaccines may be less effective against it.” 

The health secretary expressed concern over the “exponential” growth of the variant in South Africa as the country’s population was thought to have significant natural immunity. 

What new restrictions are being imposed?

England has now placed five African countries – South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe – onto its Red List from noon on Friday. Scotland has also confirmed that all arrivals from the countries must self-isolate and take two PCR tests from midday on Friday. Anyone arriving after 4am on Saturday will need to stay at a quarantine hotel. 

Israel, Germany, Japan, France and the Czech Republic are among other countries that have suspended flights. The European Union have recommended all member states stop all flight immediately.

What can you do to protect yourself?

The advice is to get vaccinated if you have not already done so. The health secretary also pleaded for Britons aged 40 and above who received their second jab at least six months ago to get their booster shot. Javid told MPs that the pandemic was “far from over” and that “we must act with caution and do all we can keep to keep the virus at bay.”