The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has been detected in several other countries, prompting nervous governments to impose strict travel restrictions to try to keep it at bay as scientists rush to establish how dangerous it could be.
Joe Biden said on Monday that the variant was “a cause for concern, not to panic.” He urged Americans to get vaccinated – including with a booster – as soon as they are eligible, and to wear masks in public places.
“Sooner or later we’re going to see new cases of this new variant here in the United States and we’re going to have to deal with this new threat just as we have faced the ones that came before it,” Biden said, but he added that further travel bans were unlikely.
As cases of the variant have emerged from Hong Kong to Australia and from Scotland to Sweden, several countries have opted for caution. Japan, which has yet to detect any Omicron infection, announced Monday that it is reimposing border controls.
“We are taking this step as an emergency precautionary measure to avoid the worst-case scenario,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. In Israel, a ban on foreign arrivals went into effect overnight, while Morocco said it would suspend all inbound flights for a fortnight.
Australia has said it will delay reopening its international borders by two weeks after reporting its first Omicron cases, and India has imposed mandatory arrival testing for flyers from a dozen countries, including South Africa and Great Britain.
Scientists have said it could take weeks to determine the severity of the Omicron, which was first identified in southern Africa, but its emergence has already sparked a wave of responses among governments fearing it could hamper economic recovery.
The EU is expected to hold a summit on the situation later this week or early next week, according to senior officials, with the aim of defining a common approach on several issues, including vaccine booster doses.
Despite warnings that border closures may have a limited effect and wreak havoc on lives, livelihoods and economies, countries choosing to impose stricter travel restrictions have argued that the restrictions would provide a valuable time to analyze the variant.
Professor Salim Abdool Karim, a South African infectious disease expert, said Omicron appeared to be more transmissible, including among those vaccinated, but it was too early to tell if it was more virulent. Several experts have suggested that the new variant may be more contagious, but may produce milder symptoms.
South Africa has strongly criticized restrictions imposed by a growing number of countries on travel from the region. President Cyril Ramaphosa said he was being unfairly punished for detecting the variant early.
In a speech on Sunday evening that was welcomed by the entire national political spectrum, Ramaphosa described the bans imposed by the UK and other governments as “not based on science, nor effective in preventing the spread of this variant ”. He said they would only serve “to further damage the economies of affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and recover from the pandemic,” adding that they were going against promises made by the G20 countries in Rome last month.
Ramaphosa said South Africa will not enter a tighter lockdown, but the government will explore ways to make vaccines mandatory.
“The government has set up a task force that will undertake broad consultations on the need to make vaccination compulsory for specific activities and locations,” he said. South Africa and Botswana have fully immunized less than 25% of their population.
Cases of Omicron in Europe had already been reported in Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands before Portugal identified 13 infections among members of the professional football team Belenenses. One of them had recently traveled to South Africa.
Dutch authorities said they had found another case, bringing the country’s total to 14 – all of 61 passengers who tested positive for the coronavirus out of 621 on two flights that arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday.
Poland said on Monday it would ban flights to seven African countries, extend quarantines for some travelers and further limit the number of people allowed in places such as restaurants amid concerns over the new variant.
“We have to appreciate the importance of this phenomenon and the risk posed by a new emerging mutation,” said Health Minister Adam Niedzielski, adding that Omicron was “a potential game changer”.
The World Health Organization has said any increase in the number of cases could have serious consequences, but noted that no Omicron-related deaths have yet been reported. Its director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, considered that the situation remained “perilous and precarious”.
The United Nations agency urged its 194 member states to speed up vaccination of high priority groups. “Omicron has an unprecedented number of cutting edge mutations, some of which are of concern for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” he said. “The overall overall risk linked to the new variant… is assessed as very high. “
Some countries, however, were more relaxed. New Zealand has said it will restrict travel from nine southern African countries, but insisted it will continue with plans to reopen internally after months of closure.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said she does not anticipate any further restrictions and that Auckland’s bars, restaurants and gyms could reopen, ending a coronavirus lockdown that began in August.
“We have gone through the last two years of Covid in better shape than almost anywhere in the world,” Ardern said, highlighting low death rates, a growing economy and high vaccination rates.