A new strain of coronavirus, first discovered in Botswana and the Republic of South Africa (South Africa), became known a few days ago. But the reaction was lightning fast: countries, one after another, are introducing a ban on air traffic with the South African region and tightening anti-epidemic measures.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is calling an emergency meeting. Experts recommend swapping masks for respirators and relying on isolation again. And, of course, urgently get vaccinated and revaccinated.

The topic does not leave the front pages. Is the panic justified? Or are these quite reasonable measures to forestall a new round of the pandemic? Rossiyskaya Gazeta understood this.

The new “African” strain, originally registered as B.1.1.529 in Botswana and South Africa, has been named “Omicron” by the World Health Organization, the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.

At an emergency meeting of WHO last Friday, the new variant (just like the earlier strains of the coronavirus “alpha”, “beta”, “gamma” and “delta”) was classified as “Variant of Concern” (VOC). The WHO explained: this means that, according to preliminary estimates, the virus has undergone changes “relevant to global public health.”

This can be an increase in transmissibility (spreading rate), an increase in virulence, a change in the clinical picture of the disease – all these signs together or separately. Another criterion that logically follows from the above is the possible decrease in the effectiveness of public health measures, available diagnostics, vaccines and treatments, including drugs.

Sounds scary. But how much? After all, early strains of SARS-CoV-2 were already included in the category of “causing concern”, but vaccines (albeit with reservations) cope with them, and there are already effective drugs, and the incidence in many countries can be controlled.

The commotion in the scientific community was caused by the number of mutations in “Omicron” – there are more than 30 of them, and they are all found in the S-protein – the very one that makes up the “thorns” of the virus. It is with these thorns that the virus, getting into the human body, “sticks” to the cell and gets inside. Therefore, both vaccines and drugs based on monoclonal antibodies are “sharpened” for the S-protein.

Countries one after another impose a ban on air traffic with the South African region and tighten anti-epidemic measures

Scientists fear that such a large number of mutations will change the properties of the S-protein so that, as a result, the virus will be able to “escape” from the antibody response to the previous strains. This means that Omicron will probably break through the vaccine protection, and those who have previously been ill with the same alpha or delta will be re-infected with a new guest from Africa.

Epidemiologist at Imperial College London, author of mathematical models for the development of epidemics, Professor Neil Ferguson noted the “unprecedented” number of mutations in the S-protein. “However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to give an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses,” the scientist was quoted as saying Reuters.

A man at the National COVID Memorial Wall in London pays tribute to those who died from the coronavirus. Photo: EPA

However, the head of the Gamaleya Center, Alexander Gunzburg, believes that Sputnik V will retain the ability to protect vaccinated people from an alien. Sputnik V provides the widest spectrum of neutralizing antibodies in comparison with other vaccines, so the likelihood that it will be effective against a new strain compared to other vaccines is higher, “Gunzburg said. vaccine modified for a new strain. ”Oxford Group Vaccine Group Director Andrew Pollard (his group developed the vaccine with AstraZeneca) also said that, in his opinion,” omicron “is unlikely to pose a danger to vaccinated people.

Immediately after the news of the emergence of a new mutant strain in South Africa, dozens of countries around the world began to restrict or curtail air traffic with the region. The most radical measures were taken by Israel – for two weeks it completely closed its borders, banning entry to all foreigners in general, reports Reuters. The other day there was discovered the first confirmed case of infection with “omicron” in a passenger arriving from Malawi. Two more patients are tested for a new strain. According to the Israeli Ministry of Health, all three patients were vaccinated.

The United States, which has not yet officially identified a single infected with omicron, as a preventive measure, since November 29, has limited air traffic with eight countries – South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Eswatini, Malawi and Lesotho. This was announced by American President Joe Biden. And New York Governor Katie Hawkul announced a state of emergency in the region until January 15, 2022 due to an increase in the number of hospitalizations with covid. In the last month, more than 300 people get into hospital beds every day – such an influx has not been remembered here since April 2022. While the federal authorities are preparing for a possible outbreak of the omicron, the US medical regulator, represented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has recommended that not only all adults, but also children aged five and over, “complete a full course of vaccination”.

The British authorities, where the omicron was detected in two people in different parts of England, ordered to suspend flights to South Africa, from where both patients had recently arrived, and to five more countries. In addition, passengers of any international flights are ordered to take a PCR test on the second day after arrival and then remain in quarantine until negative results are confirmed, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced. At the same time, England’s chief sanitary officer, Chris Whitty, hastened to reassure his subjects – at least about the omicron. He said that the delta coronavirus strain remains much more problematic for the kingdom than the new mutation. “We always knew that from time to time new variants of the“ crown ”would appear, and we do not know much about it. I think it’s not worth speculating yet,” The Telegraph quotes the physician. Advisor to the British Cabinet on Vaccination, Oxford professor John Bell agrees with him. In his opinion, “omicron” can indeed be very contagious, but it will not necessarily cause mass hospitalizations, causing only “headaches and a runny nose.” “Honestly, I think you can live with it,” Bell concluded.

The EU has agreed to limit air traffic with seven states in southern Africa. Moreover, each country has its own nuances. For example, Italy and France have temporarily suspended all flights there. And Germany has allowed airlines to take German citizens and permanent residents out of the dangerous region. That is, we are not talking about a complete ban. But all passengers, without exception, are sent from there to isolation for two weeks. This also applies to those vaccinated and ill. Even a negative PCR test cannot shorten the quarantine period. The German media are already writing about two cases of “omicron” in Munich. In the Netherlands, where 61 out of 600 passengers who arrived from South Africa on two sides, 61 have confirmed their “crown”, now no one is allowed to leave Amsterdam Schiphol Airport until the test results. By the way, thousands of tourists this weekend got stuck in the largest international airports in southern Africa. So, “Qatar Airlines” – one of the largest carriers in the skies of South Africa – suddenly canceled all flights to this country. Eyewitnesses report a veritable pandemonium in Johannesburg’s terminals.

The decision to suspend flights between Russia and South Africa and other countries will be made by the headquarters. The Rosaviatsia “RG” also explained that they are not considering questions about the suspension of air traffic, since they are within the competence of the operational headquarters. Even if such a decision is made, it is unlikely to affect the market, since we do not have air communication with these countries. “Only the operational headquarters for the fight against coronavirus infection, which includes representatives of the Ministry of Health, Rospotrebnadzor, is authorized to make decisions on any restrictions. There is no information on this issue at the moment,” Vice President of the Russian Union of Travel Industry Dmitry told RG Gorin. If a decision is made by the headquarters, it is unlikely that it will somehow affect the overall situation. “Russia does not have regular air links with these countries. To close something, you first need to open it,” he said.

Russia resumed direct flights with South Africa from October 5, 2021. However, there were no direct flights to this country from Russia even before the pandemic. Tourists went there by connecting flights, and the tourist flow was estimated at hundreds of people. Flights with other countries in southern Africa have not resumed.

Judging by how quickly the new strain is spreading around the world, it is possible that in the coming days it will be found in Russia as well.

All risks and threats are still only speculations. Moreover, according to information from South Africa, mainly young people are infected with the new strain and are not sicker than before. “But even such assumptions are enough for alarm,” – said the head of the National Institute of Allergic and Infectious Diseases of the United States, adviser to the President of the United States Anthony Fauci in an interview with Today. – We must pay close attention and be ready for something serious. Maybe things will turn out differently, but we want to be ready. “

Meanwhile, the “omicron” continues to spread rapidly across the planet: in the last two days alone, the list of countries that announced that the “omicron” has already arrived to them has more than doubled. The strain has not yet been found in Russia. But Russian scientists also believe that the situation deserves the utmost attention and caution.

“With the help of genome-wide sequencing, more than 100 cases of infection with this strain have already been identified (and this number is growing rapidly), but from experience I will say that since it is found in different countries, it means that the real number of infected is much higher, since only a small fraction of all samples the virus is subjected to sequencing, and even then not in all countries, “Kamil Khafizov, head of the scientific group for the development of new methods for diagnosing human diseases at the Central Research Institute of Epidemiology of Rospotrebnadzor, explained to RG.” The profile of mutations in the genome shows that the new strain is potentially capable of both evading antibodies and being more contagious. For this reason, this time the alarm may well be justified. “

Andrei Isaev, head of the DNKOM Center for Molecular Genetic Research, agrees with this. “The story with the omicron is developing rapidly. Already many European countries – Britain, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, the Netherlands, a little earlier Belgium – reported that several cases of infection with this strain were detected. All those infected came from South Africa, mainly from South Africa, – said Andrey Isaev to RG. – In the Netherlands, 61 passengers on a flight from Johannesburg showed a positive PCR test, and it is being clarified what proportion falls on the omicron. We know that there are the same rules as in Russia: those vaccinated with two doses of vaccines are exempted from PCR control. But given the R0 index (the reproduction index, which characterizes the infectiousness of an infectious agent. – “RG”) “omicron”, I think the entire flight could have been contaminated. ” Therefore, the expert noted, now it would be reasonable to test absolutely all passengers and send them to the observatory.

Judging by how quickly the new strain is spreading around the world, it is possible that in the coming days it will be found in our country as well. “I can assure you that our institute, like many other scientific organizations in the country, is carrying out large-scale work on sequencing the genomes of a new pathogen in order to monitor the genetic variability of the coronavirus.

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