Analysis: the new coronavirus variant seems highly transmissible, but the big question is whether it causes severe disease. Either way, poorer nations will be hit hardest

A child winces as he receives his Pfizer vaccine against Covid in a township near Johannesburg.A child receives his Pfizer vaccine against Covid in a township near Johannesburg. Photograph: Denis Farrell/AP


In early August Gideon Schreiber and a team of virologists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel began playing around with the spike protein of the Sars-CoV-2 virus – the protein that allows the virus to enter our cells – to see if they could predict future mutations that could yield dangerous new variants of Covid-19.

At the time, Schreiber noted with concern that there were a variety of ways in which the spike protein could evolve. If all of these mutations occurred at once, it could yield a variant that was both extremely transmissible and potentially capable of evading some of the body’s immune defences, blunting the efficacy of the vaccines.

Schreiber published the findings in a paper, and thought little more of it. But three months later, his fears have been realised. A variant known as B.1.1.529– which the World Health Organization named Omicron on Friday – has emerged in South Africa in the last two weeks possessing all of the mutations that Schreiber and his team predicted.