BRUSSELS (AP) – Taking an act now, ask questions later approach, countries around the world once again slammed their doors to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay on Monday as more and more people cases of the mutant coronavirus have emerged and scientists have rushed to understand just how dangerous it could be.
Japan has announced that it will ban entry to all foreign visitors, joining Israel in doing so just days after the variant was identified by researchers in South Africa. Morocco has banned all inbound flights. Other countries, including the United States and members of the European Union, have decided to ban travelers from southern Africa.
Travelers infected with the new version have emerged in a growing number of countries in recent days, and new cases in Portugal and Scotland have raised concerns that the variant is already spreading locally.
“Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It is not over with us,” warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization.
Days after the variant sent shivers through the financial world nearly two years after the start of the pandemic that killed more than 5 million people, markets had mixed reactions on Monday, with European stocks and prices rebounding. oil and Wall Street opening up, while Asian markets fell further.
The infections have shown the difficulty of controlling the virus in a globalized world of air travel and open borders. Yet many countries have tried to do just that, even against the exhortation of the WHO, which has noted that border closures often have a limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.
Some have argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant. Little is known about it, especially if it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness, or more able to escape vaccines.
While the initial global response to COVID-19 was criticized as slow and haphazard, the reaction to the new variant came quickly.
“This time the world has shown it is learning,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, citing South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for his praise. “South Africa’s analytical work and transparency and the sharing of its findings were essential to enable a rapid global response. It has undoubtedly saved many lives.”
The WHO praised Botswana as well as South Africa for quickly alerting the world to the presence of the new variant, and many have warned that countries should not be punished for their speed.
But that didn’t stop von der Leyen from successfully pushing the 27 EU countries to agree on a ban on flights from seven southern African countries over the weekend, like actions taken by many other countries. On Monday, EU members Spain and Poland continued by announcing travel and quarantine restrictions.
Cases had already been reported in EU countries in Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands before Portuguese authorities identified 13 cases of omicron among members of the team of professional football club Belenenses. Authorities reported that a member had recently visited South Africa. His match against Benfica this weekend was abandoned at half-time for lack of players.
Quarantine also became an issue when Dutch military police had to arrest a husband and wife who left a hotel where they were being held after testing positive and boarded a plane bound for the Spain.
“Quarantine is not mandatory, but we assume people will act responsibly,” spokeswoman Petra Faber said.
And after Scotland reported its first six cases, Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned “there may already be community transmission of this variant.”
Taking no risks, Japan, which has yet to detect any cases of omicron, has reimposed border controls it relaxed earlier this month.
“We are taking this step as an emergency precautionary measure to avoid the worst-case scenario in Japan,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. The new measures begin on Tuesday.
Israel has also decided to ban foreigners from entering, and Morocco has said it will suspend all inbound flights for two weeks from Monday.
Despite global concern, scientists have warned that it is still not clear whether omicron is more alarming than other versions of the virus.
Dr Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, said there is no data to suggest that the new variant causes more serious illness than previous versions at this time.
So far, doctors in South Africa are reporting that patients are mostly suffering from mild symptoms, but they are warning that it is still early days and most new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who do not do not usually get as sick from COVID-19 as the elderly.
“We have seen a sharp increase in cases over the past 10 days. So far, these were mostly very mild cases, with patients showing flu-like symptoms: dry cough, fever, night sweats, a lot. bodily pain, ”said Dr Unben Pillay, a general practitioner in Gauteng province, where 81% of new cases have been reported.
The variant provided further proof of what experts have said for a long time: that no continent will be safe until the whole world has been sufficiently immunized. The more the virus is allowed to spread, the more opportunities it has to mutate.
“The emergence of the omicron variant accurately fulfilled the predictions of scientists who warned that high transmission of the virus in areas with limited access to the vaccine would accelerate its course,” said Dr Richard Hatchett, chief of CEPI, one of the founders of the UN-supported global vaccine sharing initiative COVAX.
In some parts of the world, the authorities are moving in the opposite direction.
In Malaysia, the authorities have partially reopened a bridge connecting it to Singapore. And New Zealand has announced that it will continue its plans to reopen internally after months of closure, although it is also restricting travel from nine countries in southern Africa.
“We have come through the last two years of COVID in better shape than almost anywhere in the world,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, highlighting low death rates, a growing economy and high vaccination rates.
Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.