File photo: Chas Hundley

A new strain of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been reported in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

Little is known yet about what the World Health Organization dubbed the Omicron variant today. 

South Africa first reported the B.1.1.529 variant to the World Health Organization Wednesday, November 24. 

“In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant,” a Friday World Health Organization press release read. 

The first known confirmed case of the Omicron variant was November 9 in South Africa. The New York Times reported that the variant was spotted in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

The World Health Organization said that the Omicron variant has a large number of mutations, “some of which are concerning,” and that preliminary evidence suggested that there was an increased risk of reinfection from the variant when compared to other variants of concern. 

“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa,” the World Health Organization said. 

A number of studies underway are expected to reveal more information about the variant. 

As news emerged over the Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S., President Joe Biden joined several other countries in announcing restrictions to travel from eight southern African countries.

Citing senior white house officials, NPR reported that the countries to have travel restrictions starting Monday for non-U.S. citizens would be Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. 

“As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises,” Biden said in his remarks

Biden also encouraged adults to get their COVID-19 booster shots, and for those who have yet to become vaccinated to do so immediately. 

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“The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations. The United States has already donated more vaccines to other countries than every other country combined. It is time for other countries to match America’s speed and generosity,” Biden said.

For more information on finding a vaccine or other questions, visit Washington County’s vaccine information website