BERLIN (AP) — Australia on Sunday became the last country to detect the ommicron variant of the coronavirus in travelers arriving from southern Africa, while Israel decided to block entry for foreigners — the toughest of a growing number of curbs imposed by countries around the United States. world as they rush to slow its spread.
Confirmed or suspected cases of the new variant have already surfaced in several European countries, in Israel and in Hong Kong, just days after it was identified by researchers in South Africa. The “act first, ask questions later” approach reflected growing alarms about the emergence of a potentially more contagious strain for nearly two years in a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people, turned lives upside down and destroyed economies. has disrupted the whole world.
While there is still much to learn about the new variant, researchers fear that it may be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines and that the pandemic will last longer than expected.
Israel has moved to ban entry for foreigners and require quarantine for all Israelis coming from abroad.
“Restrictions on national borders is not an easy step, but it is a temporary and necessary step,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
dr. Ran Balicer, head of the government’s advisory panel on COVID-19, told Israeli public Kan radio that the new measures were necessary for the “fog of war” surrounding the new variant, saying it was “better to act early and strictly act” to prevent its spread.
Many countries have restricted or banned travel from several South African countries, including the latest New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and Saudi Arabia. Places that have already imposed restrictions include Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran and the US. This goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant has been thoroughly studied.
Authorities in Australia said two foreign travelers who arrived in Sydney from Africa were the first in the country to test positive for the ommicron variant. Arrivals from nine African countries now have to be quarantined in a hotel on arrival.
America’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Omicron variant is already in the US.
“We haven’t discovered it yet, but if you have a virus that exhibits this level of transmissibility … it will almost always eventually go away completely,” Fauci said on NBC television.
Also in Europe, many of which have been struggling with a sharp increase in the number of cases in recent weeks, officials were also wary.
The UK tightened its rules on mask-wearing and international arrivals testing on Saturday after finding two ommicron cases. Spain has announced that it will no longer allow unvaccinated British visitors from December 1. They are currently allowed to enter with a negative coronavirus test.
Italy went through lists of airline passengers arriving in the past two weeks after a business traveler returning from Mozambique and landing in Rome on Nov. 11 tested positive for omicron.
“The phase of searching for the new variant has started. Checks at airports, ports and train stations have been strengthened,” said Alessio D’Amato, the top health official of the Lazio region. The region that includes Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci International Airport is also sending random virus test samples to the Spallanzani Hospital for Infectious Diseases in Rome to be analyzed for the new variant.
In France, Health Minister Olivier Veran said that while no cases have been confirmed in France yet, “it is a matter of hours” as omicron infections have been reported in several neighboring countries. “It is likely that there are currently circulating cases,” he said during a visit to a vaccination center in Paris.
While it is not yet clear how existing vaccines work against the omicron variant, Veran said the French government is not changing its strategy to fight the latest wave of infections caused by the delta variant, which aims to increase vaccinations and boosters.
David Hui, a respiratory medicine expert and government adviser on the Hong Kong pandemic, said that while it is not clear whether current coronavirus vaccines are effective against the new variant, the city’s vaccination coverage should be increased and booster doses implemented. as soon as possible.
He said the two people who tested positive for the omicron variant had received the BioNTech-Pfizer injection and had very mild symptoms, such as a sore throat.
“Vaccines should work, but the effectiveness would decrease somewhat,” he said.
Zen Soo reported from Hong Kong. Adam Schreck in Bangkok and Associated Press writers around the world contributed to this report.