A new COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529, first detected from South Africa, was designated as a variant of concern by the WHO, which named it Omicron.

New Omicron variant named variant of concern, US, UK and others impose travel restrictions Image for representation/PTI
news Coronavirus Saturday, November 27, 2021 - 10:39

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries on Friday, November 26, raced to contain a new coronavirus variant by imposing travel restrictions. A World Health Organization panel named the variant Omicron and classified it as a highly transmissible variant of concern, the same category that includes the predominant delta variant, which is still driving high cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States.

It seems to spread rapidly, US President Joe Biden said of the new variant, only a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and the sense that normal life was coming back at least for the vaccinated. In announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I've decided that we're going to be cautious.”

Omicron's actual risks are not understood. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.

Travel restrictions 

In response to the variant's discovery in southern Africa, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union in restricting travel for visitors from that region, where the variant brought on a fresh surge of infections.

The White House said the US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday. Biden issued a declaration later Friday making the travel prohibition official, with exceptions for U.S. citizens and permanent residents and for several other categories, including spouses and other close family. Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied. 

We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment, British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers. Omicron has now been seen in travelers to Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, as well as in southern Africa.

Britain, EU countries and some others introduced their travel restrictions Friday, some within hours of learning of the variant. Asked why the U.S. was waiting until Monday, Biden said only: "Because that was the recommendation coming from my medical team.'' The White House said government agencies needed the time to work with airlines and put the travel limits into effect.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.

The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged any travel bans on countries that reported the new variant. It said past experience shows that such travel bans have not yielded a meaningful outcome.

The US restrictions will apply to visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. The White House suggested the restrictions will mirror an earlier pandemic policy that banned entry of any foreigners who had traveled over the previous two weeks in the designated regions.

The UK banned flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries and announced that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.

Canada banned the entry of all foreigners who have travelled to southern Africa in the last two weeks.

The Japanese government announced that Japanese nationals traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodations for 10 days and take three COVID-19 tests during that time. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals. Russia announced travel restrictions effective Sunday.

Stocks and oil prices drop 

Fears of more pandemic-induced economic turmoil caused stocks to tumble in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly dropped more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 index closed down 2.3 per cent, its worst day since February. The price of oil plunged about 13 %.

Vaccination concerns 

Some experts said the variant's emergence illustrated how rich countries' hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.

Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.

This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point, said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain's University of Southampton. He urged Group of 20 leaders "to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses.

Speaking to reporters outside a bookstore on Nantucket Island, where he was spending the holiday weekend, Biden said the new variant was "a great concern that should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations."

He called anew for unvaccinated Americans to get their widely available doses and for governments to waive intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines so they can be more rapidly manufactured around the world.

Omicron has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government's top infectious disease expert. Although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, "we don't know that for sure right now, he told CNN.

There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said. The WHO panel drew from the Greek alphabet in naming the variant omicron, as it has done with earlier, major variants of the virus.

Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear how much of a public health threat it posed. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.

Israel, one of the world's most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it also detected its first case of the new variant in a traveler who returned from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were looking into the travelers' exact vaccination status.

After a 10-hour overnight trip, passengers aboard KLM Flight 598 from Capetown, South Africa, to Amsterdam were held on the edge of the runway Friday morning at Schiphol airport for four hours pending special testing. Passengers aboard a flight from Johannesburg were also isolated and tested.

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