New Covid variant named Omicron as WHO designates it 'of concern'

26 November 2021, 18:25 | Updated: 26 November 2021, 19:31

Dr Maria Van Kerkhove said some mutations from the Omicron variant 'have some worrying characteristics'.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove said some mutations from the Omicron variant have 'worrying characteristics'. Picture: WHO/Twitter

By James Morris

The new Covid variant found in parts of southern Africa has been designated a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization – and has been named Omicron.

The B.1.1.529 variant had prompted the UK government to ban flights from six African countries today, amid fears it could be more transmissible than the currently-dominant Delta variant and more resistant to vaccines.

And Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization's (WHO) technical lead on Covid, said tonight: "Omicron is named as a variant of concern because it has some concerning properties.

"This variant has a large number of mutations and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics."

However, she added studies are still ongoing to "better characterise" Omicron in terms of transmissibility, severity and impact on counter-measures such as vaccines.

In a brief report, the WHO also said "preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other variants of concern".

The variant was first reported from South Africa on Wednesday, following a "steep" increase in coronavirus cases in the country.

Read more: Health Sec: New Covid variant of 'huge international concern'

South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana are the six countries which have so far been added to England's travel ban list following the emergence of the variant.

Health secretary Sajid Javid told MPs today that there are "very live" discussions over the prospect of adding further countries to the list.

However, Jeremy Brown, professor of respiratory infection at University College London, told LBC this evening: "It is likely to reach us eventually. It's all a question of timing."

The first European case was identified in Belgium today, with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen calling for a similar travel ban from countries in southern Africa.