International commercial flights have been suspended in the country since March last year due to the coronavirus pandemic. (File photo)

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday classified a new variant of SARS-CoV-2, currently circulating in South Africa, as a “variant of concern”. He also named it Omicron.

The Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA) had identified the variant on Monday. He had detected a group of related SARS-CoV-2 viruses, which belong to a lineage named B.1.1.529.

The first indications are that this variant may be even more transmissible than the highly infectious Delta variant, and that current vaccines may be less effective against it.

What do we know so far about Omicron?

New variants continue to emerge as SARS-CoV-2 spreads, and the importance of each mutation becomes known after some time. But health authorities around the world need to constantly monitor which ones are more important than others. It was during such an exercise that the NGS-SA detected B.1.1.529.

From what is currently known, B.1.1.529 exhibits multiple spike protein mutations, and preliminary analysis suggests that it is highly infectious. South Africa has reported a fourfold increase in new cases over the past two weeks, coinciding with the emergence of B.1.1.529.

On Thursday, the NGS-SA said B.1.1.529 had rapidly increased in Gauteng province, which includes Johannesburg and Pretoria, and may already be present in most provinces. The NGS-SA said the sustained increase in cases may be fueled by cluster epidemics.

Regular international commercial flights to and from India will resume on Dec. 15 after a 21-month ban, an order from the Civil Aviation Ministry said on Friday. While the move could potentially lower fares on some high-volume flight routes, it comes at a time when international travel faces new uncertainty due to the new variant of Covid-19.

The government has also published a list of “at risk” countries, and the nature of the resumption of international scheduled flights will depend on whether or not a country is on this list. It includes countries in Europe, including the United Kingdom, and South Africa, Brazil, Bangladesh, Botswana, China, Mauritius, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Singapore, Hong Kong and Israel. Passengers traveling from countries on this list issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare will need to undergo additional measures upon arrival in India, including post-arrival testing.