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Updated 3 December 2021

A potentially worrisome variant of COVID-19 was recently discovered in South Africa and has been detected in several countries in Africa and some European countries. The latest iteration of the novel coronavirus is designated ‘the Omicron variant’, and the World Health Organization (WHO) promptly classified Omicron as a Variant of Concern (VOA).

How is the Omicron variant affecting travel in Saudi Arabia? Has the new strain been detected in Saudi yet? Here’s everything we know so far about the variant in Saudi Arabia.

B.1.1.529 — What is the Omicron variant?

By its very nature, viruses mutate. The B.1.1.529 variant, also known as the Omicron variant, is a product of such a process and has recently been classified as a VOA by the WHO.

The first confirmed Omicron infection was from a specimen collected in early November 2021 in South Africa amidst a steep rise in infection cases. While it’s not yet clear whether the variant has been the driving force behind the country’s rapid spread, countries worldwide have implemented travel bans and restrictions for travellers from South Africa and other African countries.

What are the risks associated with the Omicron variant?

While information is currently limited, Omicron’s VOA classification by the WHO was primarily based on many mutations, some of which are concerning.

Preliminary evidence suggests that these observed mutations may cause the Omicron variant to pose an increased risk of reinfection compared to other VOCs.

As for transmissibility and severity, it’s too soon to tell whether Omicron poses a higher degree of risk compared to the delta variant. Despite the rising COVID-19 and hospitalization cases in South Africa, WHO has yet to attribute them solely to the Omicron variant.

WHO has also stated that the heavily mutated Omicron coronavirus variant is likely to spread internationally and poses a very high risk of infection surges that could have severe consequences in some places.

Epidemiological studies and observations are currently underway, and we’ll likely learn more in the coming weeks whether or not the extent of these mutations does indeed correlate with heightening risks of transmissibility and/or severity.

What are the symptoms of the Omicron variant?

Again, information is limited. According to WHO, there is currently no information to suggest that symptoms associated with the Omicron variant are different from those from other variants.

The only symptoms of the variant we could come across, as reported by the South African doctor who flagged Omicron, are:

  • extreme tiredness (all age groups).
  • no significant drop in oxygen levels.
  • no reported loss of taste or smell
  • scratchy throat.
  • mild muscle ache.
  • dry cough

As per the WHO, COVID-19 patients will typically exhibit one of these primary symptoms:

  • fever
  • dry cough
  • tiredness

Less common symptoms:

  • aches and pains
  • sore throat
  • diarrhoea
  • conjunctivitis
  • headache
  • loss of taste or smell
  • a rash on the skin, or discolouration of fingers or toes

More serious symptoms:

  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • loss of speech or mobility, or confusion
  • chest pain

Where has the Omicron variant been detected?

Apart from South Africa and Botswana, confirmed cases of the Omicron variant have been registered in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Colorado, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, India, Ireland, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Norway, Nigeria, the Czech Republic, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, the United Kingdom, the United States, the United Arab Emirates, and Japan.

While countries worldwide have been quick to close their borders to South Africa and others, the possibility of the Omicron variant having already spread undetected to other countries remains.

Has Saudi Arabia recorded any Omicron strain cases?

Saudi Arabia reported its first confirmed case of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 on December 1 2021. As stated by a Saudi health ministry official, the case of the variant has been detected in a citizen coming from a North African country to Saudi Arabia.

The person has been put in isolation, as have his contacts, and the necessary health measures have also been taken.

Are vaccines effective against the Omicron variant?

Even though it is not yet clear whether the effectiveness of current COVID vaccines is less effective against the Omicron variant. However, COVID vaccines remain critical to reducing severe disease and death, including against the dominant circulating variant, Delta.

The CEO of drugmaker Moderna also stated that COVID-19 vaccines are unlikely to be as effective against the Omicron variant of the coronavirus as previously, in the case of the Delta variant.

Omicron variant and Saudi Arabia travel

Following the outbreak of a new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, Saudi Arabia halted flights from fourteen African countries. These countries include South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi, Zambia, Madagascar, Angola, Seychelles, Mauritius and Comoros. Anyone who has spent 14 days or more in the affected regions will be barred from entering the Kingdom.

Some exceptions include those who have spent no less than 14 days in another country from which health procedures in the Kingdom allow entry, following the approved health procedures. A period of five days quarantine will be applied to all excluded groups coming from these countries, including citizens of the Kingdom, regardless of immunization status.