Omicron: Countries are racing to delay the spread of the variant as more cases are discovered
New cases of the Omicron coronavirus continued to be discovered around the world on Sunday, as countries tried to delay an increase in infections by restricting travel and imposing new quarantine measures.
Omicron debuted earlier this month in South Africa. The World Health Organization on Friday classified it as a “variant of concern,” saying it appeared to be able to reinfect patients and that it had shown mutations previously associated with reduced vaccine efficacy and increased transmissibility.
Neither outcome has yet been confirmed, nor is it yet known whether the alternative changes the severity of Covid.
The United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, South Korea and other countries have imposed severe restrictions on travel to and from the South African region. Switzerland has also imposed travel restrictions on non-African countries where cases have been detected.
Israel has become the first country to close its borders to foreigners, as officials previously indicated they were about to declare a state of emergency. At least one case has been confirmed and several others are suspected. Returning travelers will be forced into quarantine, and the government has deployed the military and local intelligence agency Shin Bet to track them down.
“Everyone is tired of life under the coronavirus,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said. “I hear what people say to me: ‘We just got out of the Delta breed and now a new breed has arrived?'” “It is not easy, but it is a fact.”
European countries have been racing to contain the Omicron variant amid a resurgence of cases caused by the previous delta variant. Dutch Health Minister Hugo de Jong said on Sunday that 13 cases of Omicron were found among 61 passengers who tested positive for the virus on two flights from South Africa to Amsterdam on Friday. All existing passengers have been forced to quarantine at the hotel for seven days, and de Jong said it was “conceivable” that there would be more Omicron cases in the country.
The Netherlands has imposed one of the strictest lockdown restrictions in the European Union over the past two weeks, with non-essential stores closing at 5pm and quarantining those returning from high-risk areas.
A third confirmed case has been identified in the UK, and dozens are being treated as suspected cases, people familiar with the matter told the Financial Times.
Calls for a renewal of the lockdown are growing in Germany after the National Academy of Sciences, Leopoldina, published a paper advising the government to impose restrictions on public and private gatherings, including for vaccinations. Two cases of the Omicron variant have been confirmed in the southern state of Bavaria.
In an interview with Bild am Sonntag, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier called on citizens to prevent the lockdown by voluntarily restricting their contact with others.
Saudi Arabia said through the Saudi Press Agency that it will allow direct entry from all countries provided that the passenger has received one dose of the vaccine in Saudi Arabia, and imposed a three-day quarantine on travelers.
Anthony Fauci, the US’s chief medical advisor, said an alternative could already be in the country. No cases were detected.
The World Health Organization has called for a “balance” in the global response to the variable, saying countries must deploy their testing and sequencing capabilities strategically to counter it. The proxy variant Omicron can be detected in routine PCR tests, because it is missing the S-gene that Alpha, the previous variant, lacks. Genomic sequencing is necessary to confirm its existence.
Since the coronavirus first emerged in Wuhan, China, in late 2019, more than 261 million people have been infected globally, and at least 5.1 million people have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Additional reporting by Samer Al-Atrash and Christian Davis