The new Omicron variant, unearthed in South Africa, is causing concern across the globe as it spreads.
It has been identified in several countries in Europe, as well as in Israel and Australia.
While it does not appear to be more virulent than the previous strains for the time being, this variant has multiple mutations that could make it more resistant to vaccines.
To contain its spread, several countries have announced the suspension of their flights from southern African countries, and France has announced the isolation of contact cases, even vaccinated.
Three syllables that spread panic across the globe.
Omicron, the name of the new variant of Covid-19, classified as "worrying" this Friday by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Identified in South Africa in the middle of the week, the Omicron variant has already been spotted in several European countries.
"We can fear that this variant is at least as contagious as the Delta", reacted this Sunday the Minister of Health Olivier Véran.
Can Omicron supplant the Delta variant?
Is he more virulent?
And should we expect another turn of the screw from the health authorities?
takes stock of this new variant.
Where does the Omicron variant circulate?
“The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO in South Africa on November 24,” the WHO said. It was brought to light by a team from the Krisp Research Institute, backed by the University of KwaZulu-Natal, already at the origin of the discovery of the Beta variant. An event "predictable, since a variant can only be born when it can circulate intensely," said Sunday on BFMTV Jean-François Saluzzo, expert virologist with the WHO. However, in Africa, there is practically no immune barrier due to vaccination so it is logical ”that this variant left from southern Africa. But before that, cases had been detected in Hong Kong and Botswana.
And quickly, Omicron spread.
At the end of the week, cases were detected in Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic, in passengers returning from South Africa or neighboring countries in southern Africa.
This Sunday in the Netherlands, the health authorities announced that among 61 passengers who left South Africa and tested positive for Covid-19 on their arrival in Amsterdam on Friday, 13 were carriers of the variant.
Two cases were identified under the same conditions in Australia, as well as one case in Israel.
Is it already present in France?
"As soon as it is circulating among our neighbors, it is likely that it is already circulating at home," said the Minister of Health on Sunday during a trip to a vaccination center in the 18th arrondissement of the capital.
But "to date, there has not yet been identification of this type of variant on the national territory, but it is very probably a question of hours", he specified.
On CNews, government spokesman Gabriel Attal announced “possible cases” in France.
“We are still at the screening stage.
We have several possible cases.
Is this Omicron variant more virulent and does it cause specific symptoms?
It would cause “different, milder symptoms,” observes Dr. Angelique Coetzee, president of the South African Medical Association, which has treated around thirty patients infected with this variant. For most men under 40, just under half of whom were vaccinated. In addition to "extreme fatigue", they suffered from muscle aches, a dry cough or "a scratchy throat", and no loss of taste or smell, she told AFP. Or a "clinical picture not corresponding to Delta".
This variant should not, according to Dr. Coetzee, be of great concern.
"So far, even the patients we have seen who were not vaccinated have had mild symptoms," said Dr Coetzee, "convinced that a lot of people in Europe [already] have this virus".
And "new variant does not mean new wave or more dangerous variant," added the Minister of Health on Sunday.
Is it more contagious or resistant to anti-Covid vaccines?
If Omicron has been classified as worrying by the WHO, it is because it presents a "very unusual constellation" of about thirty mutations, that is to say "the greatest number of mutations that we have seen to date", a explained to AFP Prof. Mosa Moshabela, research and innovation officer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. And "some of the mutations that are expressed have previously shown that they allow the virus to spread easily and quickly."
And judging by some cases of re-infections "more numerous than in previous waves", it is possible that this variant escapes immunity, fears the researcher, which could reduce the effectiveness of the vaccines.
Hence the need to "check whether the antibodies produced by our current vaccines still work, at what level they work and whether this still prevents serious cases", prescribed Vincent Enouf.
For their part, the manufacturers of anti-Covid vaccines AstraZeneca, Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax have declared themselves confident in their ability to fight the Omicron strain.
The German laboratory BioNTech, allied with Pfizer, expects first results "at the latest in two weeks".
Is there a way to stop the spread of this variant?
Even if the contamination figures remain low in South Africa, the Omicron variant has already become the dominant strain there, ahead of Delta.
So without delay, on all continents, especially in Europe, many states have already suspended their flights from southern African countries including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique or even Zambia and Angola.
A "race against time" is engaged against the variant Omicron, reacted Sunday the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen.
But “it is almost too late, judge Vincent Enouf, deputy director of the National Reference Center for respiratory viruses at the Institut Pasteur.
It is a measure which makes it possible to slow down "the expansion of a very contagious variant" but which will never make it possible to stop it completely ".
The United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Morocco have also suspended their links with these countries.
And from Tuesday, the United Kingdom will toughen entry measures into the territory.
Should we expect new health restrictions in France?
In France, less than three weeks before the Christmas holidays, many people fear a turn of the screw from the health authorities because of Omicron.
Assumptions for the time being swept away by the Minister of Health.
"Whether or not there is one or two or ten cases of people infected with this variant in circulation in Europe, or even in France, does not impact the profile of the epidemic wave that we are experiencing", assured Olivier Véran .
"What we want is to curb the circulation of this variant", continued the minister, while France announced on Saturday "the isolation of contact cases, even vaccinated".
However, the new variant "does not change the situation on our strategy", which is based on the broadest possible vaccination coverage, recalled Olivier Véran: "The more we are protected by the vaccine […] the more we slow down the wave" .
Our dossier on the Omicron variant
A position shared by the WHO, for whom vaccination remains essential, as well as poor countries' access to vaccines.
Because "the more the virus circulates, the more it has opportunities to evolve and the more we will see mutations", warned one of the persons in charge of the WHO, Maria Van Kerkhove.
Coronavirus: Detection of the Omicron variant in France, "probably a matter of hours" for Olivier Véran
Coronavirus: Faced with the Omicron variant, France imposes the isolation of "contact cases", even vaccinated
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