New “Omicron” variant | The world closes to South Africa, a first case in Europe

(Washington) Brazil, following numerous North American, European and Arab countries, became the last state to close its borders to southern Africa on Friday, where a new variant of COVID-19 dubbed Omicron was detected , which the WHO considers “worrying”.

Francesco FONTEMAGGI with AFP offices
France Media Agency

According to the expert group of the World Health Organization, preliminary data from this variant, whose identification was announced Thursday in South Africa, suggests that it presents “an increased risk of reinfection” compared to other variants, including the Delta, dominant and already very contagious. Never has a variant caused so much concern in the world since the emergence of Delta.

Canada and the United States have announced to ban entry to their soil to travelers from southern Africa, while Japan will tighten its entry restrictions, including 10 days of isolation for people from this zone.

“The information on this new variant should make it more evident than ever that this pandemic will not end without vaccinations at the global level,” Joe Biden said in a statement, also calling for more vaccines to be given to poor countries.

In Europe, the Omicron variant has been detected in Belgium. Many European countries including the United Kingdom, France, Italy or Switzerland have banned flights from South Africa and neighboring countries. This will apply from Sunday in Russia, and Tuesday in Spain.

A case was also reported in Hong Kong, one in Israel in a person returning from Malawi, and another in Botswana.

In the early evening, the European Union recommended suspending all travel from South Africa and six other countries in the region. Several Arab states including Saudi Arabia have announced that they will close their borders to travelers from the region. Brazil followed suit in the evening.

“Unjustified” measures, regretted the South African Minister of Health Joe Phaahla, evoking “instinctive reactions of panic”.

Travel restrictions, besides South Africa, apply to Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and in some cases Malawi.

There is a “high to very high” risk of the Omicron variant spreading in Europe, the EU health agency said.

Fall of world stock markets

According to the Belgian Minister of Health, Frank Vandenbroucke, the patient infected in Belgium by this new variant “came from abroad” and was tested on November 22. He came from Egypt, had transited through Turkey and arrived in Belgium on November 11, his cabinet said.

The arrival of this new variant comes as Europe has already been facing an outbreak of cases for several weeks.

The Netherlands became the latest country on the continent to announce tightening health restrictions on Friday. “From Sunday everything in the Netherlands is in principle closed between 5 pm and 5 am,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.

The surge in COVID-19 cases has prompted the postponement of the World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference, which was due to take place next week in Geneva.

These travel bans are a tragedy for the South African government just before the southern summer, when wildlife parks and hotels are normally full. The tourism industry was just beginning to hope for a normal season.

“Our immediate concern is the damage this decision will cause to tourism industries and businesses,” South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement.

On the spot, some visitors only thought of packing their bags, in particular the European teams of the United Rugby Championship who were to play the 6e day of the championship and golfers coming for the Johannesburg Open.

At Johannesburg airport, many worried travelers lined up on Friday night to try to catch the latest flights, like Toby Reid, a 24-year-old British trader on vacation with his girlfriend in Cape Town.

“Around 5:30 am, we got up to admire the sunrise,” he told AFP. By Friday evening, both had secured the last two seats on the evening flight to Frankfurt.

Fears related to this new variant have also caused oil prices to fall and lead to sharp declines in world stock markets.

Frankfurt lost 4.15% at the close, with Paris recording its worst session since March 2020 (-4.75%) and London since June 2020 (-3.64%). Also destabilized, the New York Stock Exchange closed sharply with its biggest fall of the year (-2.53%).

Moderna is studying a specific vaccine

Scientists are already trying to understand the mutations of this new variant. And Moderna has announced plans to “rapidly develop a vaccine candidate” for a dose specific to Omicron.

It will take “several weeks” to understand the level of transmissibility and virulence of the new variant, however, said the WHO spokesperson on Friday.

For the European Medicines Agency (EMA), it is “premature” to provide for an adaptation of the vaccines to the Omicron variant.

Almost 54% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but only 5.6% in low-income countries, according to the Our World in Data site. In South Africa, the most affected country on the continent, only 23.8% of the inhabitants are fully vaccinated.

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