LONDON (AP) – The potentially more contagious new omicron variant of the coronavirus emerged in more European countries on Saturday, just days after being identified in South Africa, leaving governments around the world scrambling to stop the spread.
The UK tightened its rules on mask wearing and testing for international arrivals on Saturday after finding two cases. New cases were confirmed in Germany and Italy on Saturday, with Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong also reporting that the variant has been found in travelers.
In the United States, Dr Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant was already in the United States as well.
“We haven’t detected it yet, but when you have a virus that shows that level of transmissibility… it will almost invariably end up disappearing pretty much everywhere,” Fauci told NBC TV.
Due to fears that the new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines, there is growing concern around the world that the pandemic and the associated locking restrictions will persist for much longer than expected.
Almost two years after the start of the pandemic that killed more than 5 million people around the world, countries are on high alert. Many have already placed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa as they seek to buy time to assess whether the omicron variant is more transmissible than the current dominant delta variant.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was necessary to take “targeted and precautionary action” after two people tested positive for the new variant in England.
“At the moment, this is the responsible course of action to slow down the seeding and spread of this new variant and to maximize our defenses,” he said at a press conference.
Among the measures announced, Johnson said anyone arriving in England must take a PCR test for COVID-19 on the second day after arrival and self-isolate until they provide a negative test. And if anyone tests positive for the omicron variant, he said their close contacts will have to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status – currently close contacts are exempt from quarantine rules if they are. fully vaccinated.
He also said that wearing the mask in shops and on public transport will be mandatory and said the independent group of scientists advising the UK government on the rollout of coronavirus vaccines have been urged to speed up the vaccination program. . This could involve expanding the booster program to younger age groups, reducing the time between a second dose and a booster, and allowing older children to get a second dose.
“From today we will be stepping up the recall campaign,” he said.
The UK Department of Health said the two cases found in the UK were linked and involved travel from southern Africa. One of the two new cases was in the town of Brentwood, in the south-east of England, while the other was in the central city of Nottingham. The two confirmed cases are self-isolating with their households during contact tracing and targeted testing.
The UK government has also added four more countries – Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia – to the country’s travel red list from Sunday. Six more – Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – were added on Friday. This means that anyone allowed to arrive from these destinations will have to self-quarantine.
Many countries have placed restrictions on various Southern African countries over the past two days, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, European Union, Iran, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand and the United States, in response to warnings about the transmissibility of the virus. new variant. This goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned against overreacting before the variant is studied in depth.
Despite the flight ban, there is growing concern that the variant has already been widely used around the world.
Italy and Germany were the latest to report confirmed cases of the omicron variant.
An Italian who had traveled to Mozambique on business landed in Rome on November 11 and returned home near Naples. He and five members of his family, including two school-aged children, have since tested positive, Italian news agency LaPresse said. All are in isolation in the Neapolitan suburb of Caserta in good condition with mild symptoms.
The variant was confirmed by Sacco Hospital in Milan, and the Italian National Institute of Health said the man had received two doses of the vaccine. Italy’s health ministry is urging all regions to step up its virus tracing and sequencing to detect cases of the new variant first identified in South Africa.
In Germany, the Max von Pettenkofer Institute, a Munich-based microbiology center, said the omicron variant was confirmed in two travelers who arrived by flight from South Africa on November 24. Institute director Oliver Keppler said genome sequencing is not yet complete, but there is “no doubt proven to be this variant,” the news agency reported. German dpa.
The Dutch Institute of Public Health said the omicron variant was “probably found in a number of people tested” who were isolated after arriving in Amsterdam on Friday on two flights from South Africa. The institute said in a statement that further sequencing analysis is underway to determine with certainty that this is the new variant. The results were expected on Sunday. A total of 61 people were tested.
Israel said it detected the new strain in a traveler who had returned from Malawi and was looking for 800 travelers recently returned from countries in southern Africa. And Australia said on Sunday morning that its scientists were working to determine whether two people who tested positive for COVID after arriving from southern Africa are infected with the omicron variant.
The rapid spread of the variant among young people in South Africa alarmed healthcare professionals even though there was no immediate indication whether the variant is causing more serious illness.
A number of pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, have said they have plans in place to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of omicron. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said they expected to be able to fine-tune their vaccine in about 100 days.
Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines might be effective in preventing serious disease due to the omicron variant, noting that most mutations appear to be in regions similar to those in other variants.
“At least from a speculative point of view, we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for severe disease, but we really have to wait several weeks for this to be confirmed,” a- he told BBC radio.
Some experts have said that the emergence of the variant illustrates how hoarding of vaccine-rich countries threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Less than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immune to COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. These conditions can accelerate the spread of the virus, providing more possibilities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.
“One of the key factors in the emergence of variants may well be the low vaccination rates in some parts of the world and the WHO warning that none of us are safe until we are.” not all and should not be taken into account, ”said Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor on Saturday and they stressed the importance of working together to help African countries immunize their populations, the State Department said. in a press release. He said Blinken praised South African scientists for quickly identifying the omicron variant and the government for being transparent in sharing this information, “which should serve as a model for the world.”
Geir Moulson in Berlin, Mike Corder in The Hague, The Netherlands, Colleen Barry in Milan, Lynn Berry in Washington, and Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.
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