Countries around the world struggled to process a bleak new twist in the nearly 2-year pandemic, with the World Health Organization warning Monday that omicron, a highly mutated variant of the coronavirus, poses a “very high” global risk of new ones. outbreaks.
The emergence of the variant “underlines how dangerous and precarious our situation is,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday.
“We shouldn’t need another wake-up call,” Tedros said. “We should all be wide awake to the threat of this virus.”
In measures reminiscent of the early days of the outbreak, when the virus spread rapidly around the world, some governments have moved to impose travel bans and border closures in an effort to keep the variant at bay.
Japan said Monday it would ban non-citizens and become the second country after Israel to do so. Morocco went one step further, blocking all inbound flights for two weeks, and many countries have restricted travel from South Africa, where the variant was discovered last week.
But omicron has already been detected in more than a dozen countries, including the US’s northern neighbor Canada, and health authorities said the variant’s infectivity and the wide geographic distribution of existing cases suggest it’s already in wide circulation.
Regions where the mutation has been found range from Europe to the Middle East to East Asia, in countries such as Great Britain, Germany, France, Portugal, Denmark, Israel, Hong Kong and Australia.
Experts stressed that much is still unknown about this variant, including the severity of the disease it causes — no deaths have yet been attributed to it — and how effective existing vaccines are against it.
Finding even preliminary answers to these questions will likely take a week or two, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Biden administration’s chief COVID-19 adviser. While no cases have been reported in the US yet, Fauci told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Monday that it was “inevitable” that the variant would find a way in.
In Washington, President Joe Biden said ommicron was “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” He used a White House speech to again call on Americans to get vaccinated and get a booster vaccination if they had already received the vaccine.
The United Nations health organization WHO also urged its 194 member states to speed up vaccinations, especially for vulnerable groups. The group of seven health ministers held an emergency meeting on Monday about the new variant.
For a virus-ridden world, the news of the rise of omicron was a hard blow, heading into the New Year celebrations and the prospect of a third winter in the shadow of disease and disruption.
Global financial markets, which plummeted last week after South Africa’s announcement, stabilized somewhat, but in many countries there was a widespread feeling that neither the national economy nor any exhausted citizen would accept draconian measures such as a total shutdown.
In recent weeks, several European countries have been hit by protests over restrictions and mandates amid a fourth wave of COVID-19, some of which has spiraled into violence. In much of Europe, as in the United States, there is a small but deeply rooted anti-vaccine movement, often aligned with the far right.
The WHO and others have said that omicron is of particular concern because of the unprecedented number of peak mutations, which could affect the overall trajectory of the pandemic. “The overall global risk associated with the new variant of care, omicron, is rated very high,” the health service said.
Experts have long warned that poor countries’ limited access to vaccines — as well as vaccine hesitancy, when shots are readily available — gives the virus more opportunities to mutate.
Travel curbs are a much discussed remedy. The WHO suggested that countries take a “risk-based” approach, but added that vulnerable populations were at “significant” risk, especially in countries with low vaccination coverage.
Countries, including the United States, have moved to restrict travel from South Africa and at least seven other African countries. That led to complaints that South Africa was being punished for reporting its findings about the new variant quickly and transparently.
The WHO seemed to agree, with Tedros saying the current system “discourages countries warning others of threats that will inevitably land on their shores”.