The race is on to hint the brand new COVID-19 variant

Passengers briefly disembark the MSC Europa cruise ship after docking to South African waters, as the brand new coronavirus variant Omicron spreads, in Cape City, South Africa, November 30, 2021. REUTERS/Shelley Christians

LONDON/BRUSSELS/SINGAPORE – Governments all over the world are urgently scouring databases for latest instances of COVID-19 infections, screening travellers and decoding the viral genomes of the brand new variant as they attempt to measure how far it has unfold.

The tempo of the work highlights the stress on governments and public well being authorities to determine shortly whether or not they should take unpopular, economically damaging steps to curb Omicron’s unfold.

Knowledge reveals it was circulating earlier than it was formally recognized in southern Africa final week and it has since been detected in additional than a dozen international locations. Work to determine whether it is extra infectious, lethal or evades vaccines will take weeks.

Britain and different main economies banned flights to and from southern Africa simply days after the variant was first detected, roiling world monetary markets and stirring worries in regards to the financial injury.

The velocity of the motion is in stark distinction to the emergence of different variants – when the primary samples of the Alpha variant have been documented in Britain in September 2020, the federal government spent months gathering knowledge and assessing its potential hazard earlier than imposing a nationwide lockdown in December.

It took the World Well being Group (WHO) months to designate it a variant of concern – its highest stage.

Scotland and Singapore are scrambling to verify tens of 1000’s of latest optimistic instances for indicators of the variant they could have missed and america is enhancing its COVID-19 surveillance to tell apart home instances of the Omicron variant from the still-dominant Delta.

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The European Union’s well being commissioner has urged member states to spice up efforts to detect mutations, as some nonetheless lag behind nearly two years into the pandemic.

The bloc has now confirmed 42 instances in 10 international locations.

“Sure Member States lag behind significantly by way of this important dimension,” Stella Kyriakides stated in a letter seen by Reuters to well being ministers of the 27 EU international locations.

“Already confronted with a difficult winter because of the excessive transmissibility of the Delta variant (…) we could now expertise additional or further pressures due to the looks of the Omicron variant,” she wrote.


Most PCR checks can’t distinguish Omicron from the Delta variant, the dominant and most infectious model of the virus up to now.

To tell apart Omicron from Delta, the PCR take a look at should be capable of establish a mutation in Omicron often called the S-gene drop-out or S-gene goal failure (SGTF).

It’s not a fail-safe as a result of the Alpha variant, first recognized in Britain, additionally has that mutation.

Provided that Alpha is now not broadly circulating, the presence of the S-gene dropout suggests the pattern is optimistic for Omicron and alerts the lab to ship the pattern for genome sequencing for affirmation.

If native PCR checks can’t establish this mutation, then randomly chosen PCR swab samples should endure genome sequencing, which may take as much as per week.

The WHO has stated that broadly obtainable checks are in a position to detect people contaminated with any variant, together with Omicron.

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Nonetheless, it has up to now solely really useful the TaqPath take a look at produced by U.S. agency Thermo Fisher as a proxy.

It is not clear if international locations will purchase kits because of the distinctive attribute of the take a look at. Singapore is contemplating shopping for extra, though no determination has but been made, Kenneth Mak, the well being ministry’s director of medical companies, advised Reuters.

Thermo Fisher has stated it’s ready to extend manufacturing to fulfill demand from international locations in Africa and elsewhere as they work to trace the unfold of the brand new variant.

Most U.S. labs might be utilizing the TaqPath take a look at, Scott Becker, chief government of the Affiliation of Public Well being Laboratories (APHL), a community of state and municipal public well being laboratories, advised Reuters.


Out of the 150,000 optimistic checks going again a month assessed in Belgium, 47 had S-gene drop-out and a excessive viral load. Solely considered one of them was Omicron, based on Marc Van Rast, one of many virologists who parsed the samples.

The Scottish authorities have gone by way of swabs again to Nov. 1 to assist in uncover 9 instances of Omicron, all linked to the identical occasion.

They’ve discovered that round Nov. 16, S-gene goal failure had began showing within the checks once more, per week earlier than South Africa and Botswana recognized the brand new variant. That function has helped to direct genomic sequencing, because it did when Alpha emerged.

“That is without doubt one of the quirks of this specific variant that we will use to our benefit,” Gregor Smith, Scotland’s chief medical officer, stated on Monday.

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It means the federal government can begin estimating how prevalent the brand new variant could also be, establish individuals who could must get examined once more and which samples should be prioritised for additional decoding in labs, Smith stated.

“It is the most effective technique that we’ve to have the ability to establish instances at this time limit.”