The efficacy of the current coronavirus vaccines against the new Omicron variant will be clear in one to two weeks, Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst (KU Leuven) has said.
As very little is known scientifically about the new variant, which was first discovered in South Africa but has since been detected in various other countries, it is still a matter of guessing not only how ill it will make people, but also how effective the existing vaccines will be against it.
"In our lab in Leuven, we have not been able to investigate this new variant yet. The sample that we examined (the only known case in Belgium so far), is not fresh enough to do further research on," Van Ranst told Belga news agency.
"Other countries and pharmaceutical companies are looking into this: I believe we will know more soon," estimating a waiting period of one to two weeks. He added that, until we know more, imposing travel restrictions for southern countries in Africa, prompting Belgium to suspend flights and other countries, is a wise decision.
One doctor in South Africa has said the variant seems to be causing mild symptoms so far, but according to Van Ranst, "it is still too early to make any big statements about that."
"Those results mainly concern the younger population. The Omicron variant has not yet reached older people: it remains to be seen what symptoms they will create."
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Van Ranst explained that in the best case, if the variant will be highly infectious, but that it would not make people very sick, the travel restrictions should once again be lifted.
In the meantime, pharmaceutical companies have said they are looking into how effective their vaccines are. Moderna announced on Friday it is working to address the new Omicron variant.
Meanwhile, German company BioNTech, which developed a coronavirus vaccine with the US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, announced it is currently studying the variant and expects to publish the results of this analysis, and whether its vaccine would have to be reworked, in the next two weeks.
Spread of Omicron variant
Van Ranst stated that there is currently still just one infection with the Omicron variant known in Belgium, however, it was reported on Sunday that 13 of the 61 positively tested travellers who were placed in isolation at the Dutch airport Schiphol on Friday involve cases of the mutant contamination.
In order to determine which coronavirus variant was involved, these test samples were sent to the Dutch Institute for Public Health and the Environment for further analysis for a sequencing study, which is still ongoing, meaning more samples of the new variant may be found.
All travellers came from flights from southern Africa. The Dutch government has since announced that all passengers who have arrived in the Netherlands from southern Africa since last Monday should get themselves tested immediately. It also wants to discuss at the European level whether travel restrictions are necessary.