The World Health Organization has warned blanket travel bans will not prevent the spread of Omicron, as more countries rushed to impose curbs and the first cases of the new COVID strain were detected in Latin America and Japan.
Japan suspended all new flight bookings into the country from Wednesday in response to Omicron while Brazil reported the first cases in Latin America of the new strain, which has pushed dozens of countries to impose travel restrictions – mostly targeting southern African nations.
And while the likely futility of such broad curbs was underscored by Dutch authorities reporting that Omicron was present in the country before South Africa reported its first cases on November 25, governments pressed ahead with emergency travel measures.
"We have asked airlines to halt accepting all new incoming flight reservations for one month starting December 1," a Japanese transport ministry official told AFP, adding that existing bookings would not be affected.
Japan confirmed its first Omicron case on Tuesday, and it had already tightened its tough COVID border measures.
Japanese authorities on Wednesday announced they had detected a second infection of the new strain in an arriving traveler – this time in a person arriving from Peru.
Governments elsewhere in Asia also continued to expand curbs Wednesday, with Indonesia adding Hong Kong and Malaysia listing Malawi on their travel ban lists.
Hong Kong placed Japan, Portugal and Sweden on its highest travel restriction category after the discovery of Omicron there.
These came despite the WHO saying Tuesday that such "blanket" moves risked doing more harm than good.
In a travel advisory, it warned the bans could ultimately dissuade countries from sharing data about the evolving virus.
But it did advise unvaccinated people vulnerable to COVID-19, including over-60s, to avoid travel to areas with community transmission of the virus.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was understandable for countries to seek to protect their citizens "against a variant we don't yet fully understand."
But he called for "rational, proportional risk-reduction measures."
So far, well over a dozen countries and territories have detected Omicron cases, including Australia, Britain, Canada, Israel, Italy and Portugal.
Nigeria, Africa's most populous country, also reported its first Omicron cases on Wednesday.
The same day, Canada banned travellers from Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt.
President Joe Biden said the US travel bans on just the southern African nations would stay in place, without referencing the other places where Omicron has been detected.
Asked how long travel restrictions that took effect Monday on South Africa and seven other southern African countries would remain, Biden said it "kind of depends."
"We're going to learn a lot more in the next couple weeks about the lethality of this virus, about how much it spreads, what we have to control it, etcetera," he told reporters.
The WHO believes the high number of mutations on this variant may make it more transmissible or resistant to vaccines, but it could take weeks to determine whether and to what extent Omicron is vaccine-resistant.
Its detection and spread, however, have highlighted that the global fight against COVID-19 is far from over.
The WHO earlier advised Philippine health officials there is no need to reimpose the mandatory use of face shields even amid the possible entry of the more transmissible Omicron variant.
"The virus is airborne, transferred via close contact transmission. What is important is observing social distance, wearing a face mask and hygiene," WHO representative to the Philippines Dr. Rabindra
Abeyasinghe said during a briefing Tuesday.
"As long as these minimum public health protocols are complied with and we ensure that people do not congregate in closed settings…face shields, at this point, are not mandatory because we are still looking at and understanding the transmission dynamics of the Omicron variant," Abeyasinghe said.
He also advised Filipinos not to overreact to the possible entry of the new COVID-19 variant.
"We just need to be very rational in our approach," Abeyasinghe said in a televised public briefing.
"They (public) should not assume that something is here, it needs to be confirmed by testing," the WHO officials said.