BRUSSELS (AP) – The discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus caused a chill across much of the world on Friday as countries rushed to stop air travel, markets plummeted and scientists held emergency meetings to weigh the exact risks that were largely unknown.
The World Health Organization group named the omicron variant and classified it as a highly hereditary virus of concern, the same category that includes the delta variant. The WHO suggested that this option may pose a greater risk than the delta option, which is the most common option in the world and is fueling relentless waves of infection on all continents.
According to the WHO, early evidence suggests an increased risk of re-infection compared to other options with a high degree of transmission. This means that people who have contracted COVID-19 and recovered may become infected with it again.
In response, the United States and Canada have joined the European Union and several other countries, imposing travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa.
The White House said the US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region from Monday. He did not provide details, except that the restrictions will not apply to returning US citizens or permanent residents who will continue to require a negative test result before traveling.
Medical experts, including WHO, warned against any overreaction before the southern African option was better understood. But a troubled world feared the worst nearly two years after COVID-19 emerged and sparked a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide.
“We need to act quickly and as early as possible,” UK Health Minister Sajid Javid told lawmakers.
There was no direct indication of whether this variant caused more severe disease. As with other options, some infected people are asymptomatic, according to South African experts. The WHO group used the Greek alphabet as a basis for the name of the omicron variant, as was done with the earlier major variants of the virus.
While some genetic changes are troubling, it was unclear if the new variant poses a significant public health threat. Some of the previous versions, such as the beta version, initially worried scientists, but did not become widespread.
The European Union, made up of 27 countries, has imposed a temporary ban on air travel from southern Africa, and stocks have fallen in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 fell 2.3%, its worst day since February. The oil price fell by almost 12%.
“The last thing we need is to introduce a new option that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn. In the EU member states, there has recently been a sharp surge in the incidence.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “be suspended until we have a clear understanding of the danger this new option poses and travelers returning from the region must comply with strict quarantine rules.”
She insisted on extreme caution, warning that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more variants of the virus, which could spread around the world within a few months.”
Belgium became the first European Union country to announce the case for this option.
“This is a suspicious option,” said Health Minister Frank Vandenbruck. “We don’t know if this is a very dangerous option.”
It has yet to be found in the United States, according to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US government’s chief infectious disease expert. Overseas, the option “seems to be spreading at a fairly rapid pace,” he told CNN. And while it may be more vector-borne and resistant to vaccines than other options, “we don’t know for sure right now.”
According to Professor Mark Van Ranst, who works at the science center, Professor Mark Van Ranst, who works in the scientific community, has demonstrated how difficult it can be to propagate a variant. a group overseeing the Belgian government’s response to COVID-19.
Israel, one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, announced Friday that it also discovered its first case of the new variant in a traveler returning from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspects were isolated. Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials are looking into the exact vaccination status of travelers.
After a 10-hour overnight journey, passengers on KLM Flight 598 from Cape Town, South Africa to Amsterdam were detained at the edge of the runway Friday morning at Schiphol Airport for four hours awaiting special tests. Passengers on the flight from Johannesburg were also isolated and monitored.
“This is ridiculous. If we haven’t caught this horrible bug before, we will catch it now,” said passenger Francesca Medici, an art consultant from Rome, who was on the flight.
Some experts said the emergence of this option illustrates how the accumulation of vaccines in wealthy countries threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Less than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of healthcare workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. These conditions can accelerate the spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to become a dangerous option.
“This is one of the consequences of inequality in vaccine deployment and why the seizure of excess vaccines by richer countries will inevitably affect all of us at some point,” said Michael Head, Senior Research Fellow in Global Health at the University of Southampton, UK. … He called on the leaders of the G-20 to “go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their dose-sharing commitments.”
The new option has heightened investor concerns that months of COVID-19 progress could be reversed.
“Investors are likely to shoot first and then ask questions until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley of currency broker Oanda.
In a sign of how worried Wall Street is, the so-called fear of the market, known as the VIX, jumped 48% to 26.91. This is the highest volatility index since January, before vaccines were widely distributed.
Speaking before the EU announcement, Dr. Michael Ryan, head of emergency services at WHO, warned against knee reflexes.
“We’ve seen minutes in the past when there was any mention of any variation and everyone was closing borders and restricting travel,” Ryan said. “It’s very important to stay open and focused.”
The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agreed to and strongly discouraged travel bans to countries reporting the new version. It says past experience has shown that such travel bans “have not been meaningful.”
However, the US announced restrictions on visitors from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi just hours after governments took similar steps.
The UK banned flights from South Africa and five other South African countries at noon Friday and announced that anyone who recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
Canada has banned entry to all foreigners who have traveled to southern Africa in the past two weeks.
The Japanese government has announced that Japanese citizens traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to be quarantined in government-allocated facilities for 10 days and undergo three COVID-19 tests during that time. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign citizens.
Fauci said US public health officials spoke Friday with their South African counterparts. “We want to find out exactly what is happening, from scientist to scientist.”
A WHO technical working group says the number of coronavirus infections has jumped 11% over the past week in Europe, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise.
WHO Regional Director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent action, another 700,000 people could die on the continent by spring.
Associated Press contributors Lorne Cook in Brussels, Colleen Barry in Milan, Pan Pilas in London, Jamie Kiten in Geneva, Mike Corder in The Hague, Dave McHugh in Frankfurt, Carly Petsch in Dakar, Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg and Frank Jordaens in Berlin contributed into this report.