BRUSSELS. Nearly two years after the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic on Friday, the world has been fighting to contain a new variant of the coronavirus, potentially more dangerous than the one that has caused unrelenting waves of infection on almost every continent.
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 predominant delta variant, which remains a scourge, leading to an increase in the number of cases of illness and death in Europe and some other countries. … United States.
“It seems to be spreading fast,” US President Joe Biden said of the new version just a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and the feeling that normal life is returning, at least for the vaccinated. When announcing the new travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I decided we’d be careful.”
The actual risks of Omicron are not recognized. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of re-infection compared to other highly transmitted options, according to WHO. This means that people who have contracted COVID-19 and recovered may become infected with it again. It can take weeks to find out if current vaccines are less effective against it.
In response to the discovery of an option in southern Africa, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries have joined the European Union, restricting travel by visitors from the region, where the option has sparked a new wave of infections.
The White House said the US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region from Monday. Biden said it means “no travel” to or from designated countries, with the exception of returning US citizens and permanent residents who test negative.
Medical experts, including WHO, warned against any overreaction before the option was thoroughly studied. But a troubled world feared the worst after a persistent virus 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.
Omicron is now seen on travelers in Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, as well as southern Africa.
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 of the genetic changes are troubling, it was unclear what public health threat they pose. Some of the previous versions, such as the beta version, initially worried scientists, but did not become widespread.
Fears of new economic shocks caused by the pandemic have caused stocks to plunge in Asia, Europe and the United States. The Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly dropped more than 1,000 points. The S&P 500 fell 2.3%, its worst day since February. The oil price fell by about 13%.
“The last thing we need is to introduce a new option that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn. Recently, among the EU members, consisting of 27 countries, there has been a sharp surge in the incidence.
The UK, EU countries and a few others imposed their travel restrictions on Friday, some within hours of exploring the option. When asked why the US is waiting until Monday, Biden only replied, “Because it was a recommendation from my medical team.”
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 warned that “mutations can lead to the emergence and spread of even more variants of the virus, which could spread around the world within a few months.”
“This is a suspicious option,” said Frank Vandenbroek, Minister of Health for Belgium, which became the first country in the European Union to announce a case of this option. “We don’t know if this is a very dangerous option.”
Omicron has yet to be found in the United States, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the US government’s chief infectious disease expert. While it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other options, “we don’t know for sure right now,” he told CNN.
Speaking to reporters outside a bookstore on Nantucket Island where he was spending the holiday weekend, Biden said the new option is “a serious concern” that “should make it clear than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have a global vaccination. “.
He reiterated his call for unvaccinated Americans to receive their widely available doses, and governments to move away from intellectual property protection for COVID-19 vaccines so that they can be produced more quickly around the world.
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 tested.
“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.
The African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has discouraged travel bans to countries that have reported a new option. It says past experience has shown that such travel bans “have not been meaningful.”
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 prohibited entry to any foreigners who had traveled in the specified regions in the previous two weeks.
The UK has banned flights from South Africa and five other South African countries 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. Russia announced travel restrictions from Sunday.
This was reported by Woodward from Washington. Associated Press correspondents Lorne Cook in Brussels; Colleen Barry in Milan; Pan Pilas in London; Jamie Kiten in Geneva; Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands; Dave McHugh in Frankfurt, Germany; Carly Pets in Dakar, Senegal; Andrew Meldrum in Johannesburg; Frank Jordaens in Berlin; and Darlene Superville of Nantucket, Massachusetts contributed to this report.