THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) – Cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus emerged in countries on both sides of the world on Sunday and many governments rushed to close their borders even as scientists warned it was not clear whether the new variant was more worrisome than other versions of the virus.
The variant was identified days ago by researchers in South Africa, and much remains unknown about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness, or more able to evade vaccine protection. But many countries were quick to act, reflecting concern about anything that could prolong the pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people.
Israel decided to ban entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks from Monday – among the strictest travel restrictions imposed by countries around the world as they seek to slow the spread of the alternative. Scientists in several places – from Hong Kong to Europe to North America – have confirmed their existence. The Netherlands reported 13 omicron cases on Sunday, and Canada and Australia each found two.
The World Health Organization noted that the variant had already been detected in many countries and that closing borders often had a limited effect, and called for borders to be kept open.
Meanwhile, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, emphasized that there is no data yet to suggest that the new variant causes more severe disease than previous variants of COVID-19.
“I think it’s more contagious when you look at how quickly it spreads across multiple areas in South Africa. So it has the advantage of being particularly likely to spread from person to person,” Collins said on CNN’s State of the Union… What we don’t know is Whether it can compete with Delta.
Collins has echoed many experts in saying the news should make everyone redouble their efforts to use the tools the world already has, including vaccines, booster shots, and measures like wearing masks.
“I know, America, I’m really sick of hearing this stuff, but the virus never gets tired of us,” Collins said.
The Dutch public health authority has confirmed that 13 people who arrived from South Africa on Friday have tested positive for Omicron so far. They were among 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before the flight ban was implemented. They were immediately isolated, mostly in a nearby hotel.
Canada’s health minister said the country’s first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two people who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.
Australian authorities said two travelers arriving in Sydney from Africa became the first to test positive for the new variant in the country. Arrivals from nine African countries are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival. Two German states have reported three cases in total for travelers returning over the weekend.
Israel has moved to ban entry to foreigners and to quarantine all Israelis coming from abroad.
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said on Monday that Japan is considering stepping up border controls. Kishida told reporters that he plans to announce new measures in addition to the current 10-day quarantine requirements for travelers from South Africa and eight other neighboring countries. Japan’s borders are still closed to foreign tourists from any country.
On Sunday, the Moroccan Foreign Ministry tweeted that all incoming flights to the North African country would be suspended “to preserve the achievements Morocco has made in the fight against the epidemic, and to protect the health of citizens.” Morocco has been at the forefront of vaccinations in Africa, and kept its borders closed for months in 2020 due to the pandemic.
The United States plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other South African countries starting Monday. “It will give us a period of time to beef up our preparedness,” the top US infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said of the ban on ABC’s “This Week.”
Many countries impose such a ban, although it goes against advice from the World Health Organization, which has warned against any overreaction before the alternative is thoroughly studied.
Fauci says it will take roughly another two weeks to get more specific information about its transmissibility, severity and other characteristics, according to a statement from the White House.
The South African government reacted angrily to the travel ban, which it said was “akin to punishing South Africa for advanced genetic sequencing and the ability to discover new variants faster.”
The World Health Organization sent a statement saying that it “stands with African countries” noting that travel restrictions may play “a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.” If restrictions are imposed, she said, they should be scientifically based, not intrusive.
In Europe, many of which have already recently been experiencing a sharp increase in the number of cases, officials have been on their guard.
The United Kingdom on Saturday tightened rules for the wearing of masks and testing of international arrivals after two cases of omicron were found, but British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the government was no closer to bringing back work from home or taking stricter social distancing measures.
“We now know that these kinds of measures have a very high price, both economically and socially, in terms of non-COVID health outcomes such as the impact on mental health,” he told Sky News.
Spain has announced that it will no longer accept unvaccinated British visitors from 1 December. France continues to pay vaccinations and reinforcements.
David Hoy, a respiratory medicine expert and government advisor on the epidemic in Hong Kong, agreed with the strategy.
He said the two people who tested positive for the Omicron formula had received the Pfizer vaccine and had developed very mild symptoms, such as sore throats.
“Vaccines have to work, but there will be some decrease in their effectiveness,” he said.
Molson reports from Berlin, Collins from Columbia, South Carolina. Zen Su in Hong Kong, Adam Shrek in Bangkok, and Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.
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