The World Health Organization (WHO) declared, on Friday, the new B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 to be a variant of concern, renaming it Omicron.
“Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology… the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern, named Omicron,” the U.N. health agency said in a statement.
It pointed out that a strain of coronavirus recently discovered by South African researchers is a variant of concern, posing a threat that could confound countries’ efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19.
Following a meeting by a panel of experts Friday, the WHO assigned the Greek letter omicron to the variant, which had been known as B.1.1.529.
Scientists believe that the variant carries a high number of mutations in its spike protein, which plays a key role in the virus’s entry into cells in the body. It’s also what is targeted by vaccines, so if the protein changes enough, it raises concern that the mutations could make immunizations less effective.
In South Africa, the strain “has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” the WHO said.