New omicron variant stirs fears and triggers travel bans | News, Sports, Jobs
BRUSSELS – The discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus sent shivers through much of the world on Friday as nations rushed to stop air travel, markets fell sharply and scientists held emergency meetings to assess the exact risks, which were largely unknown.
A World Health Organization panel named the variant “Omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the delta variant. The WHO has suggested that the omicron may pose greater risks than the delta, which is the most prevalent variant in the world and has fueled relentless waves of infection on every continent.
Early evidence suggests an increased risk of re-infection compared to other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. This means that people who have contracted COVID-19 and have recovered could be prone to catching it again.
In response, the United States and Canada have joined the European Union and several other countries in placing travel restrictions on visitors to southern Africa, where the variant has caused a new wave of infections and is believed to have originated.
The White House said the United States will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region from Monday. He did not give immediate details except to say the restrictions will not apply to returning U.S. citizens or permanent residents, who will continue to be required to test negative prior to their travel.
Medical experts, including the WHO, have cautioned against overreacting before the variant is better understood. But a nervous world feared the worst nearly two years after the emergence of COVID-19 and the outbreak of a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide.
“We must act quickly and as soon as possible”, British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.
Omicron has now been observed in travelers in Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel as well as southern Africa.
There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people show no symptoms, South African experts have said. The WHO panel used the Greek alphabet to name the omicron variant, as it did with earlier major variants of the virus.
While some of the genetic changes seem worrying, it was not clear how much of a threat they posed to public health. Some earlier variants, like the beta variant, were initially of concern to scientists but did not spread very far.
The 27-country European Union suspended air travel from southern Africa and stocks fell in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost more than 1,000 points before rising in the afternoon. The S&P 500 Index was down 2.3%, posting its worst day since February. The price of oil plunged nearly 12%.
“The last thing we need is to introduce a new variant which will cause even more problems” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. EU member countries have recently seen a massive spike in cases.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights should “be suspended until we have a clear understanding of the danger posed by this new variant, and travelers returning from this region must adhere to strict quarantine rules.”
She warned that “The mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more worrying variants of the virus that could spread around the world within months.”
Belgium became the first country in the European Union to announce a case of the variant.
“It’s a suspicious variant” said Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke. “We don’t know if this is a very dangerous variant.”
It has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr.Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s foremost expert on infectious diseases. Abroad, the variant “Seems to be spreading at a reasonably fast rate”, he told CNN. And while it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, “We don’t know for sure at the moment.”
President Joe Biden said the new variant “Should explain more clearly than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations.” He again called on unvaccinated Americans to get their doses widely available and governments to forgo intellectual property protections for COVID-19 vaccines so they can be made faster around the world.
Showing how complicated the spread of a variant can be, the Belgian case involved a traveler who returned from Egypt to Belgium on November 11 but only became ill with mild symptoms on Monday, according to Professor Marc Van Ranst , who works for the scientific group overseeing the Belgian government’s COVID-19 response.
Israel, one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, announced on Friday that it had also detected its first case of the new variant in a traveler returning from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but authorities were seeking to know the exact vaccination status of travelers.
After an overnight 10-hour journey, passengers on KLM flight 598 from Capetown, South Africa to Amsterdam were held up on the edge of the runway on Friday morning at Schiphol Airport for four hours while waiting for special tests. Passengers on a flight from Johannesburg were also isolated and tested.
“It’s ridiculous. If we hadn’t caught the dreaded bug before, we catch it now,” said passenger Francesca de ‘Medici, a Rome-based art consultant who was on board the flight.
Some experts have said that the emergence of the variant illustrates how hoarding of vaccine-rich countries threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Less than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immune to COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. These conditions can accelerate the spread of the virus, providing more possibilities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.
“This is one of the consequences of inequity in vaccine deployment and the reason why the hoarding of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably spill over to all of us at some point,” said Michael Head, senior researcher in global health at the UK University of Southampton. He urged the leaders of the Group of 20 “Go beyond vague promises and keep their commitments to share the doses”.
The new variant added to investor anxiety that months of progress containing COVID-19 could be reversed.
“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley of the Oanda currency broker.
As a sign of concern on Wall Street, the so-called market fear gauge known as the VIX jumped 48% to 26.91. This is the highest reading on the volatility index since January, before the vaccines were widely distributed.
The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has discouraged any travel bans in countries that have reported the new variant. He said past experience shows that such travel bans have “did not give a significant result.”
Yet much of the world has decided to close or severely restrict contact with travelers from southern Africa.
US restrictions will apply to visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The White House suggested the restrictions would reflect an earlier pandemic policy that barred the entry of any foreigners who had traveled in the previous two weeks to the designated areas.
At noon on Friday, the UK banned flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries and announced that anyone who recently arrived from those countries would be asked to be tested for the coronavirus.
Canada has banned the entry of all foreigners who have visited southern Africa in the past two weeks.
The Japanese government has announced that Japanese nationals from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will be required to quarantine themselves in dedicated government accommodation for 10 days and spend three COVID-19 testing during this time. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals. Russia announced travel restrictions effective Sunday.
The WHO technical working group says coronavirus infections jumped 11% over the past week in Europe, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise.
WHO’s director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, has warned that without urgent action, the continent could see 700,000 more deaths by spring.