Nearly two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, the world raced Friday
to contain a new coronavirus variant potentially more dangerous than the
one that has fuelled relentless waves of infection on nearly every
A World Health Organization (WHO) panel named the variant "omicron"
and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same
category that includes the predominant delta variant, which is still a
scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts
of the US.
"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."
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong raised a similar
stand in his speech at the People’s Action Party Convention 2021 on 28
November. He said that Singapore was tracking the new variant "very
closely" and could be forced to "take a few steps back before we can
take more steps forward".
Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunised against Covid-19 — a factor that could speed up spread of the virus. Photo Credit: Getty Images/gustavofrazao
Countries closed to South Africa and other countries in the region
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
In response to the variant's discovery in southern Africa, the US,
Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the EU in
restricting travel for visitors from that region, where the variant
brought on a fresh surge of infections.
Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction
before the variant was thoroughly studied. But a jittery world feared
the worst after the tenacious virus triggered a pandemic that has killed
more than five million people around the globe.
"We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment," British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.
Omicron has now been seen in travellers to Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, as well as in southern Africa.
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.
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%, its worst day since February. The price of oil plunged
"The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause
even more problems," German Health Minister Jens Spahn said. Members of
the 27-nation EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently.
Britain, EU countries and some others introduced their travel
restrictions Friday, some within hours of learning of the variant. Asked
why the US was waiting until Monday 29 November, Biden said only:
"Because that was the recommendation coming from my medical team."
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."
She warned that "mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of
even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide
within a few months."
"It's a suspicious variant," said Frank Vandenbroucke, health
minister in Belgium, which became the first European Union country to
announce a case of the variant. "We don't know if it's a very dangerous
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.
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.
Israel, one of the world's most vaccinated countries, announced
Friday that it also detected its first case of the new variant in a
traveller who returned from Malawi. The traveller and two other
suspected cases were placed in isolation. Israel said all three were
vaccinated, but officials were looking into the travellers' exact
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.
"It's ridiculous. If we didn't catch the dreaded bug before, we're
catching it now," said passenger Francesca de' Medici, a Rome-based art
consultant who was on the flight.
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 immunised 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
"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."
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 foreign exchange broker Oanda.
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
The White House said the US will restrict travel from South Africa
and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday 29 November.
Biden said that means "no travel" to or from the designated countries
except for returning US citizens and permanent residents who test
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 travelled
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 travelling
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
Woodward reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Lorne
Cook in Brussels; Colleen Barry in Milan; Pan Pylas in London; Jamey
Keaten in Geneva; Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands; Dave McHugh in
Frankfurt, Germany; Carley Petesch in Dakar, Senegal; Andrew Meldrum in
Johannesburg; Frank Jordans in Berlin; and Darlene Superville in
Nantucket, Massachusetts, contributed to this report.
Source: Travel Weekly