Updated 22 December 2021
A potentially worrisome variant of COVID-19 was recently discovered in South Africa and has so far been detected in several countries in Africa as well as 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).
Here’s everything we know so far about the variant.
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 omicron variant has been the driving force behind the country’s rapid spread, countries around the world 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 its large number of 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.
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 to heighten risks of transmissibility and/or severity.
Prof Francois Balloux, director of the Genetics Institute at University College London has said that “Omicron tends to be better able to reinfect people who have been previously infected and received some protection against Covid-19”.
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 symptoms of the variant, 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
- congestion and runny nose
As per the WHO, COVID-19 patients will typically exhibit one of these primary symptoms:
- dry cough
Less common symptoms:
- aches and pains
- sore throat
- 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?
According to reports, the Omicron variant has been detected in around 89 countries including South Africa, Botswana, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Croatia, Cyprus, Canada, Czech Republic, Cuba, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Ghana, Hungary, Hong Kong, India, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kuwait, Latvia, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nigeria, Norway, Oman, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Senegal, Sweden, Switzerland, Slovakia, Turkey, the Netherlands, the UAE, the UK, and the US.
While countries around the world 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. The list will be updated accordingly.
Has UAE recorded any Omicron strain cases?
In December, the UAE detected its first case of the variant in a passenger transiting through an Arab country from an African country. The Ministry of Health and Prevention has urged citizens and residents of UAE to fully vaccinate themselves and take a booster shot as the UAE approved vaccines are safe, highly effective and one of the most crucial ways to protect people from severe COVID outcomes.
The United Arab Emirates reported the highest number of daily Covid-19 infections since late September, amidst the fast-spreading omicron variant. Even though the authorities have not broken down cases by variant, the UAE, one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, reported over 285 cases on 19 December 2021.
Are vaccines effective against the omicron variant?
In the absence of sufficient data, 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 EMA head stated in an interview that the Early evidence showed a “clear” drop in the effectiveness of current Covid-19 vaccines against the Omicron variant of coronavirus. The head of the European drugs regulator also stated that it will take time to reach a consensus on whether variant-targeted vaccines will be needed.
Booster shot advisory
The Omicron variant requires further research and investigation and may have a genetic mutation that may increase its spread more than previous ones.
The UAE’s Ministry of Health and Prevention has urged residents to go in for a booster shot as it could provide a stronger immune response against COVID-19 variants.
The UAE has urged all individuals over the age of 18 years, who have completed six months after taking their second jab, to visit their nearest vaccination centre to take the booster dose. The National Emergency, Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) stated that studies have proved that basic and booster vaccines help reduce the risk of infection, disease-related complications and death.
Booster shots are currently being administered by the UAE health authorities in the form of a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine and are administered six months following the second dose. However, individuals who have taken Pfizer or Sputnik jabs after being vaccinated with Sinopharm are not eligible for booster shots.
Omicron variant and UAE travel
Following the outbreak of the new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, UAE authorities have made it a provision for everybody over the age of 18, who have received their second shot of Pfizer or Sputnik V more than 6 months ago, to get a third ‘booster’ jab. The NCEMA has also announced that the booster shot will also be given to the patients who have taken the Sinopharm vaccine.
Due to the omicron variant, the UAE has announced travel bans and restrictions for travellers originating from or transiting from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Morocco. As directed by the Dubai COVID‑19 Command and Control Centre (CCC), the travel restrictions will remain in place until further notice.
Emirates Airline through its website has confirmed the suspension of inbound flights from said African countries and advises affected passengers to simply hold on to their Emirates ticket for when flights resume.
Similarly, Etihad Airways has also suspended all passenger services between the UAE and South Africa in response to the spread of the omicron variant. Etihad is notifying affected passengers regarding the restrictions and those who have purchased their tickets through a travel agent are advised to contact the agency for assistance.
Through the National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Emergency Management Authority (NCEMA), the UAE also announced the suspension of entry for inbound travellers arriving and transiting from the Republic of Congo.
Furthermore, the UAE authorities have implemented fresh travel requirements for travellers arriving on direct flights from Nigeria, Kenya, Rwanda and Ethiopia. These include having a negative COVID-19 test obtained within 48 hours and a Rapid-PCR test at the airport within six hours of the departure.
Travellers from these four countries transiting in the UAE must produce a negative COVID-19 test obtained within 48 hours and a Rapid-PCR test at the airport of their main point of departure within six hours of travelling in addition to another Rapid PCR test at the transit airport before being allowed to enter the UAE.
Apart from this, a reminder has been given to strictly follow common precautionary measures like sanitising hands and surfaces, wearing masks and respecting the social distance.
VTL with Singapore deferred
In an effort to mitigate the spread of the omicron variant, Singapore has deferred its Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) arrangements with the UAE along with Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The air VTL with Singapore, originally scheduled for 6 December, would have allowed UAE travellers quarantine-free travel to Singapore and vice versa. However, due to the developing situation, said VTL has now been put on hold indefinitely as per the announcement made by Singapore’s Ministry of Health.