The World Health Organization warned Monday the new COVID-19 Omicron variant posed a “very high” risk globally, despite uncertainties about the danger and contagion levels of the new strain.
The UN health agency said the COVID strain, first discovered in southern Africa, was a “highly divergent variant with a high number of mutations… some of which are concerning and may be associated with immune escape potential and higher transmissibility.”
“The likelihood of potential further spread of Omicron at the global level is high,” WHO cautioned in a technical note.
The Philippines said it would temporarily suspend plans to allow fully vaccinated tourists entry, in a bid to prevent the variant taking off in a country where most of the population remains unvaccinated.
Manila had hoped to revive the country’s battered economy by allowing jabbed tourists entry as of Wednesday.
To date, no deaths connected with the Omicron variant have been reported, WHO added.
But even if the new variant does not prove more dangerous or deadly than previous ones, if it spreads more easily it will spark more cases and more pressure on health systems, and thus more deaths, the organisation said.
“If another major surge of COVID-19 takes place driven by Omicron, consequences may be severe,” it said, concluding that “the overall global risk related to the new VOC (variant of concern) Omicron is assessed as very high.”
WHO said countries should enhance their surveillance to try to get a clear overview of where and how fast it was spreading.
It also urged accelerated vaccination against COVID, especially among vulnerable populations who have yet to receive any jabs.
But it has cautioned against imposing travel bans, fearing that blocking travel from countries where new variants are first spotted could be unfair and dissuade surveillance.
“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said WHO regional director Matshidiso Moeti.
A growing list of countries has imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa, including Britain, Indonesia, Kuwait, the Netherlands, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Meanwhile, G7 health ministers were to hold an emergency meeting Monday on the new Omicron COVID-19 strain spreading across the globe and forcing border closures, as experts race to understand what the variant means for the fight to end the pandemic.
The meeting was called by G7 chair Britain, which is among a steadily growing number of countries detecting cases of the heavily mutated new strain.
“We know we are now in a race against time,” said European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen. Vaccine manufacturers needed two to three weeks “to get a full picture of the quality of the mutations”, she added.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday called on countries to lift the travel bans “before any further damage is done to our economies”.
The head of the World Health Organization in Africa also urged countries to follow the science rather than impose flight bans in a bid to contain the new COVID strain.
Dutch health authorities said they had identified at least 13 cases of Omicron among 61 quarantined passengers who tested positive for coronavirus after arriving from South Africa.
Border police there announced Sunday they had arrested a couple on a plane at Schiphol Airport after they fled a hotel where the passengers were being quarantined.
Despite the new threat, tens of thousands rallied in Austria to protest the government’s introduction of compulsory vaccination – the first EU country to do so.
Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said it was “a minor interference” compared to the alternative for a country with one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe.
Senior US government scientist Anthony Fauci said he “continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID” during a briefing on the new variant with President Joe Biden on Sunday.
Israel raises ‘red flag’
Israel announced some of the strictest curbs, closing the borders to all foreigners — just four weeks after reopening to tourists following a prolonged COVID-driven closure.
“We are raising a red flag,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.
But the new strain has already slipped through the net and has now been found everywhere from the Netherlands to the UK, Botswana, Hong Kong, and Australia.
Canada became the latest country to announce its first detected cases Sunday in two people who had travelled to Nigeria.
Scientists in South Africa said they had last week detected the new variant with a far greater number of mutations than in the cases of earlier strains like Beta or Delta — the latter of which dented the global recovery and sent millions worldwide back into lockdown.
Japan announced plans Monday to bar all new foreign travelers over the Omicron variant of Covid-19, joining a growing list of countries trying to erect virtual fortresses against the heavily mutated new strain.
The Japanese government has become the latest country to reinstate strict border controls that many had hoped would be a thing of the past, barring all new foreign arrivals just weeks after announcing it would finally allow some visa holders to enter the country.
Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the country was “in a stronger position against the Omicron variant than other countries,” citing voluntary mask-wearing and self-restraints about risk behaviors.
The variant is also throwing a tentative opening-up into doubt in Australia, where the government is now reconsidering plans to relax border restrictions further in just two days.
‘Race against time’
Much of the uncertainty surrounds just how infectious Omicron is and how resistant it is to existing vaccines.
The prestigious Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome on Sunday released the first “image” of the new strain and confirmed there were many more mutations than seen in the Delta variant, though said that does not mean it is more dangerous.
But European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday governments faced a “race against time” to understand the strain and that vaccine manufacturers needed two to three weeks “to get a full picture of the quality of the mutations”.
South Africa has strongly protested the new restrictions, with its foreign ministry claiming it is being “punished” for first identifying a strain that has now been detected everywhere from the Netherlands to the UK, Canada to Hong Kong.
President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday urged countries to lift the travel bans “before any further damage is done to our economies”, while his counterpart in Malawi, Lazarus Chakwera, accused Western countries of “Afrophobia” for shutting their borders.
“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” WHO regional director Matshidiso Moeti said.
But in a sign of optimism, Singapore and Malaysia eased coronavirus travel restrictions on one of the world’s busiest land borders after nearly two years.
Pandemic treaty negotiations
WHO member states have reached a consensus on kick-starting the process towards creating a pandemic treaty setting out how to handle the next global health crisis.
Countries agreed to set up an intergovernmental body charged with drafting and negotiating a WHO accord on pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response.
Nations are meeting in Geneva from Monday to Wednesday to discuss an international agreement setting out how to handle the next pandemic – which experts fear is only a matter of time.
Sunday’s draft decision should be formalized during the meeting.
The gathering comes with the planet still besieged by COVID-19, nearly two years on from the first recorded cases, and now shaken by Omicron, the new COVID variant of concern.
The economic turmoil and millions of lives lost in the pandemic triggered calls for new international defenses strong enough to prevent a repeat disaster.
The three-page draft decision was posted on the WHO’s website.
Shadow of Omicron
This week’s meeting of the World Health Assembly — the WHO’s decision-making body comprising all 194 member states — is an unprecedented special session on how to handle the next pandemic.
The final outcome — whether a treaty or another formulation – should be sealed in 2024.
The special session is going ahead, despite travel restrictions relating to the discovery of Omicron.
The World Trade Organization’s four-day ministerial conference in Geneva next week was postponed due to the new variant of concern.
A European diplomat told AFP that the emergence of Omicron had sharpened minds.
“It shows this is far from over, and we really need the world to get together on this,” he said.
“It shows how important it is that we come up with legal obligations towards each other to share information.”