More Omicron cases pop up as world rushes to learn more
THE HAGUE (AP):
Cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in countries on opposite sides of the world on Sunday, and many governments rushed to close their borders even as scientists cautioned that it’s not clear if the new variant is more alarming than other versions of the virus.
The variant was identified days ago by researchers in South Africa, and much is still not known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness, or more able to evade the protection of vaccines. But many countries rushed to act, reflecting anxiety about anything that could prolong the pandemic that has killed more than five million people.
Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting on Monday – among the most drastic of a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scrambled to slow the variant’s spread. Scientists in several places – from Hong Kong to Europe – have confirmed its presence. The Netherlands reported 13 Omicron cases on Sunday, and Australia found two.
Noting that the variant has already been detected in many countries and that closing borders often has limited effect, the World Health Organization called for frontiers to remain open.
Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, meanwhile, emphasised that there is no data yet that suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous COVID-19 variants.
“I do think it’s more contagious when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa. It has the earmarks, therefore, of being particularly likely to spread from one person to another. What we don’t know is whether it can compete with Delta,” Collins said on CNN’s ‘State of the Union’.
Collins echoed several experts in saying the news should make everyone redouble their efforts to use the tools the world already has, including vaccinations, booster shots and measures such as mask-wearing.
“I know, America, you’re really tired about hearing those things, but the virus is not tired of us,” Collins said.
The Dutch public health authority confirmed that 13 people who arrived from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for Omicron. They were among 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before a flight ban was implemented. They were immediately put into isolation, most at a nearby hotel.
Authorities in Australia said two travellers who arrived in Sydney from Africa became the first in the country to test positive for the new variant. Arrivals from nine African countries are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival. Two German states reported a total of three cases in returning travellers over the weekend.
Israel moved to ban entry by foreigners and mandate quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.
“Restrictions on the country’s borders is not an easy step, but it’s a temporary and necessary step,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
Morocco’s foreign ministry tweeted on Sunday that all incoming air travel to the North African country would be suspended to “preserve the achievements realised by Morocco in the fight against the pandemic, 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 because of the pandemic.