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'There could be future surges of COVID with severe consequences': WHO on Omicron

The UN health agency said it is possible the variant has mutations that could enable it to escape an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.

Published: 30th November 2021 07:37 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th November 2021 07:37 AM   |  A+A-

Passengers wait at a ticket counter at Johannesburg's OR Tambo's airport, Monday Nov. 29, 2021. (Photo | AP)

By PTI

GENEVA: The World Health Organization warned Monday that the global risk from the omicron variant is "very high" based on early evidence, saying the mutated coronavirus could lead to surges with "severe consequences."

The UN health agency, in a technical paper issued to member states, said "considerable uncertainties" remain about the variant that was first detected days ago in southern Africa.

But it said it is possible the variant has mutations that could enable it to escape an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.

"Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors, including where surges may take place," it added.

"The overall global risk is assessed as very high."

The warning came as a widening circle of countries around the world reported cases of the variant and moved to slam their doors shut while scientists race to figure out just how dangerous this version might be.

Japan announced it would bar entry of all foreign visitors, joining Israel in doing so just days after the variant was identified by researchers in South Africa.

Morocco banned all incoming flights.

Other countries, including the U.S. and European Union members, have moved to prohibit travelers arriving from southern Africa.

If the virus proves dangerous as feared, "the impact on vulnerable populations would be substantial, particularly in countries with low vaccination coverage," WHO said, noting that no deaths linked to omicron have been reported so far.

Spain became one of the latest countries to report its first confirmed case of the variant.

While the vast majority of infections have been seen in travelers arriving from abroad, cases in Portugal and Scotland have raised fears that the variant may already be spreading locally.

"Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It's not done with us," warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO's director-general.

Days after the variant sent a shudder through the financial world nearly two years into the pandemic that has killed over 5 million people, markets had mixed reactions Monday, with European stocks and oil prices rebounding and Wall Street opening higher, while Asian markets fell further.

U.S. President Joe Biden called the omicron variant a cause for concern but "not a cause for panic."

He said he is not considering any widespread U.S. lockdown and instead urged vaccinations and mask-wearing.

The infections have underscored the difficulty in keeping the virus in check in a globalized world of jet travel and open borders.

Yet, many countries are trying to do just that, against the urging of the WHO, which noted that border closings often have limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.

Some argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant.

Little is known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade vaccines.

While the initial global response to COVID-19 was criticized as slow and haphazard, the reaction to the new variant came quickly.

“This time the world showed it is learning,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise.

“South Africa's analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response.

It no doubt saved many lives.

” Late last week, von der Leyen successfully pushed the 27-nation EU to agree to ban flights from seven southern African nations, similar to what many other countries are doing.

Cases had already been reported in EU nations Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands before Portuguese authorities identified 13 omicron infections among members of the Belenenses professional soccer team.

Authorities reported one member had recently traveled to South Africa.

A game over the weekend had be abandoned at halftime for lack of players.

Spain's first document case was detected in a traveler who returned Sunday from South Africa after making a stopover in Amsterdam, one of Madrid's major public hospitals tweeted.

And after Scotland reported its first six cases, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned that "there might already be some community transmission of this variant."

Taking no chances, Japan, which has yet to detect any omicron cases, reimposed border controls that it had eased earlier this month.

"We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said.

The new measures begin Tuesday.

Israel likewise decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday.

And Britain expanded its COVID-19 booster program to everyone 18 and older, making millions more people eligible.

Up until now, booster shots were available only to those 40 and over and people particularly vulnerable to the virus.

The U.K. has reported about a dozen omicron cases.

Despite the global worry, scientists cautioned that it is still unclear whether omicron is more alarming than other versions.

So far, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms, but they warn that it is still early.

Also, most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.

"We've seen a sharp increase in cases for the past 10 days. So far they have mostly been very mild cases, with patients having flu-like symptoms: dry coughs, fever, night sweats, a lot of body pains," said Dr. Unben Pillay, a general practitioner in Gauteng province, where 81% of the new cases have been reported.

The variant has provided further proof of what experts have long been saying: that no continent will be safe until the whole globe has been sufficiently vaccinated.

The more the virus is allowed to spread, the more opportunities it has to mutate.

"The emergence of the omicron variant has fulfilled, in a precise way, the predictions of the scientists who warned that the elevated transmission of the virus in areas with limited access to vaccine would speed its evolution," said Dr. Richard Hatchett, head of CEPI, one of the founders of the U.N.-backed global vaccine sharing initiative COVAX.

The World Health Organisation on Sunday urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concerns over the new omicron variant.

WHO's regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, called on countries to follow science and international health regulations in order to avoid using travel restrictions.

"Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods," Moeti said in a statement.

"If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations."

Moeti praised South Africa for following international health regulations and informing WHO as soon as its national laboratory identified the omicron variant.

"The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended," said Moeti.

"WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19."

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called the restrictions "completely unjustified."

"The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant," said in a speech Sunday evening.

"The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries, and undermine the ability to respond to, and also to recover from, the pandemic."

Cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in countries on opposite sides of the world Sunday and many governments rushed to close their borders even as scientists cautioned that it's not clear if the new variant is more alarming than other versions of the virus.

While investigations continue into the omicron variant, WHO recommends that all countries "take a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures which can limit its possible spread."

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, emphasized that there is no data yet that suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous COVID-19 variants.

"I do think it's more contagious, when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa," Collins said on CNN's "State of the Union."

Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday, among the most drastic of a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed as nations scrambled to slow the variant's spread.

Scientists in several places, from Hong Kong to Europe, have confirmed its presence.

The Netherlands reported 13 omicron cases on Sunday, and Australia found two.

The US plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries starting Monday.

"With the omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity," said Moeti.

"COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions."

WHO said it scaling up its support for genomic sequencing in Africa so sequencing laboratories have access to adequate human resources and testing reagents to work at full capacity.

WHO also said is ready to offer additional help, reinforcing COVID-19 responses including surveillance, treatment, infection prevention and community engagement in southern African countries, it said.

How the countries have been dealing with Omicron threat

Japan announced Monday it will suspend entry of all foreign visitors from around the world as a new coronavirus variant spreads.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the measure will take effect Tuesday.

The decision means Japan will restore border controls that it eased earlier this month for short-term business visitors, foreign students and workers.

Over the weekend, Japan tightened entry restrictions for people arriving from South Africa and eight other countries, requiring them to undergo a 10-day quarantine period at government-designated facilities.

Many countries have moved to tighten their borders after the new omicron variant of the coronavirus was found in a number of nations.

hasn't changed New Zealand's plans to ease restrictions in Auckland and move the nation into a new, more open phase of its pandemic response, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Monday.

Bars, restaurants and gyms in Auckland can reopen from late Thursday, ending a coronavirus lockdown that began in August.

Around the country, a new "traffic light" system will bring an end to lockdowns but people will need to be fully vaccinated in order to guarantee participation in anything from getting a haircut to watching a concert.

New Zealand on Sunday restricted travel from nine southern African countries in response to the omicron threat.

Ardern said she didn't anticipate any further restrictions.

She said as the new variant is studied more, New Zealand will continue doing fundamental things like contact tracing, isolating infectious people and requiring mask use in some settings.

Ardern said Auckland and some other parts of the North Island would enter the new traffic light system under a red light, due to outbreaks or lower vaccination rates.

Other parts of the country would enter under an orange light.

She said the past few months had been perhaps the hardest the country had faced since the pandemic began, but the sacrifices of many had helped stabilize an Auckland outbreak while vaccination rates improved.

"We've come through the past two years of COVID in better shape than nearly anywhere in the world," Ardern said, pointing to low death rates, a growing economy and high vaccination rates.

The traffic light system is designed to indicate where outbreaks are putting pressure on the health system.

A green designation imposes few restrictions, orange requires more mask wearing and distancing, while red limits gathering sizes.

Ardern in October set an ambitious target of getting 90% of all eligible people across each of 20 health districts fully vaccinated before moving to the new system.

But with about 85% of New Zealanders aged 12 and over fully vaccinated, Ardern decided it was time to make the move.

Last week, the government announced the nation will reopen its borders to the world over the coming months, allowing for the return of displaced residents from January and tourists from April.

Six cases of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant have been identified in Scotland, taking the UK's total to 11 following three cases in England last week and two in London on Monday.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said the latest two cases found in Camden and Wandsworth areas of London have links to travel in southern Africa.

Earlier on Monday, the Scottish government said four cases have been found in Lanarkshire and two in the Greater Glasgow and Clyde area.

While all of England's detected cases have a travel link with southern Africa, some of the people identified in Scotland have no travel history and may have caught the potentially highly transmissible variant in the community.

"On some of the cases, we are aware that there is no travel history involved. So, what that tells us is that there must be a degree of community transmission of this particular strain of the virus," Scotland Deputy First Minister John Swinney told the BBC in reference to the cases detected in Scotland.

But the minister reiterated that it is too early to say whether even tougher social distancing norms may be required against what is feared to be a potentially highly infectious variant and its response to current vaccines is yet to be fully determined.

"This will be a worrying time for the six people now identified as having the new variant,” said Scotland Health Secretary Humza Yousaf.

"All will receive expert help and support and Public Health Scotland will undertake enhanced contact tracing in all cases. This will help establish the origin of the virus and any further individuals they have come into contact with in recent weeks," he said.

Omicron was first reported in South Africa and cases have been detected in countries across the world, including Australia, Germany, Israel and Hong Kong.

Ten countries in southern Africa have been added to the UK's travel ban "red list" in response and all overseas travellers arriving into the UK from Tuesday will need to take a PCR test.

India also tightened its international travel norms in response, keeping all of Europe, including the UK, on an "at risk" list, requiring additional airport screening and self-isolation as part of actions against the new variant.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had set out plans for compulsory face coverings in shops and on public transport, which will be laid before Parliament this week.

Meanwhile, the UK's vaccine advisory body backed an expansion of the COVID-19 booster vaccine scheme to all adults aged over 18.

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), has said it would be "sensible" to cut the current six-month time gap between doses and extend boosters to the under-40s as part of a planned "boost the booster" drive to protect against COVID-19.

The UK government on Monday announced to expand its COVID-19 booster vaccination programme, accepting the updated advice from scientists to extend the offer of a third top-up vaccine dose to all adults over the age of 18 and also to halve the minimum gap between second and third doses from six to three months.

UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons that he had accepted the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advice in full because vaccines remain the "best line of defence" against COVID-19, including the new Omicron variant.

The minister stressed that while there is little knowledge about the new variant, it is unlikely that vaccines would not at least prevent severe disease.

"In this race between the vaccines and the virus, the new variant may have given the virus extra legs," Javid told Parliament.

"Against this backdrop of this new variant we want to go further and faster. It [booster dose change] represents a huge step up for our vaccination programme. Almost doubling the number of people who will be able to get a booster dose to protect themselves and their loved ones," he said.

The minister reiterated that "COVID-19 has not gone away" and that it is expected that the number of Omicron variant cases will rise in the UK over the coming days from the current figure of 11.

The new variant has now been reported in many countries, including Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal.

Javid hosted an urgent virtual G7 meeting on the issue and updated Parliament that ministers from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US had agreed on "urgent action" against the threat of the new, "highly transmissible" variant of COVID-19.

Earlier, the JCVI confirmed that its updated advice to expand the booster vaccine programme is intended to increase the body's immunity while scientists around the world study the makeup of the new Omicron variant, first detected in southern Africa.

Among other updated recommendations, the JCVI also advise that children aged 12 to 15 should be invited for a second jab three months after their first and severely immunosuppressed people should be offered a fourth dose of a COVID-19 vaccine over and above three previous doses.

"Having a booster dose of the vaccine will help to increase our level of protection against the Omicron variant," Professor Wei Shen Lim, JCVI chair, said at a Downing Street briefing on Monday.

"This is an important way for us to reduce the impact of this variant on our lives, especially in the coming months" 

"We want to provide boosters early enough. Before any possible wave," he explained.

Early evidence suggests the new Omicron variant, initially reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) from South Africa last Wednesday, has a higher re-infection risk and it remains unclear how effective the current vaccines will prove against it.

England's Deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, said scientists around the world agree that the Omicron variant is "of increased concern", but stressed that there remains a "high degree of current uncertainty" about it.

"I want to be clear that this is not all doom and gloom at this stage and I do not want people to panic at this stage," said Van-Tam.

"If vaccine effectiveness is reduced as seems pretty likely to some extent, the biggest effects are likely to be in preventing infections and hopefully there will be smaller effects on preventing severe disease. But that is something that is there for scientists to work out in the next few weeks," he said, adding that the booster campaign is of vital importance in preparing for what's in store from the "new kid on the block" Omicron.

The UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) Chief Executive, Dr June Raine, added that their thorough vaccines review and monitoring had shown that it is safe for those aged 12 to 15 to have a second vaccine dose.

"Our message to people aged 12-15 is that it is safe to have a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine and if you're called to receive your second dose, please go and take that offer. It will ensure that you're further protected from COVID-19," said Raine.

Meanwhile, it is hoped that tighter measures such as compulsory face coverings in shops, public transport and other indoor settings could buy more time for scientists to gain a greater understanding of the new COVID variant.

The measure along with compulsory PCR tests for incoming international travellers will be in force across the UK from early on Tuesday.

President Joe Biden called the new coronavirus variant omicron a cause for concern but “not a cause for panic" Monday and said he was not considering any widespread US lockdown.

He urged Americans anew to get fully vaccinated, including booster shots, and return to face masks indoors in public settings to slow any spread.

Speaking Monday at the White House, Biden said it was inevitable that the new variant would reach the US, but he also said the country has the tools necessary to protect Americans, particularly the approved vaccines and booster shots.

When omicron arrives, and it will, Biden said, America will "face this new threat just as we've faced those that have come before it."

He appealed to the roughly 80 million unvaccinated Americans aged 5 and up to get their shots, and for the rest of the country to seek out booster shots six months after their second dose.

He also encouraged everyone to get back to wearing face masks in all indoor public settings — a pandemic precaution that has fallen out of use across much of the country.

Biden was joined by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert and the president's COVID-19 adviser, who said earlier Monday that scientists hope to know in the next week or two how well the existing COVID-19 vaccines protect against the varian t, and how dangerous it is compared to earlier strains.

"We really don't know," Fauci told ABC's "Good Morning America," calling speculation premature.

The new variant poses the latest test to Biden's efforts to contain the pandemic, mitigate its impacts on the economy and return a sense of normalcy to the U.S. during the holiday season.

"This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic," Biden said, as U.S. financial markets rebounded Monday after falling sharply on Friday.

The White House said there were no plans to curtail Biden's travel as a result of the new variant.

Biden last week moved to restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in southern Africa, effective Monday, in a bid to give scientists time to learn more about the new variant, and for more Americans to get vaccinated before it hits the U.S.

South African officials have argued they are being punished for speedily identifying and reporting the new variant.

As omicron spreads across the globe, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday, "we will continue to assess what steps we need to take to protect the American people."

Some other nations are reinstating severe travel and business lockdowns to prevent the omicron variant from spreading, but Biden indicated the U.S. was not following suit.

"If people are vaccinated and wear their mask, there's no need for lockdowns," he said.

Fauci said earlier on "CBS Mornings" that limiting travel from the countries where omicron was first identified "buys you a couple of weeks because if you can keep things out in force for a couple of weeks you can do a lot of things."

Pharmaceutical companies are already adjusting their existing COVID-19 vaccines to better attack the omicron variant, but Fauci said Americans should make it a priority to get either their first shots or a booster dose now, rather than waiting for a new formulation.

"I would strongly suggest you get boosted now," he said.

He added that depending on what scientists learn about the omicron variant in the coming weeks "we may not need" targeted boosters to contain that strain of the virus.

Biden said his administration was “sparing no effort at removing all roadblocks to keep the American people safe," including working with drug manufacturers on potential new boosters and testing targeted specifically at the new variant.

Any omicron-specific vaccine probably could not begin to be produced for another two or three months, so getting boosters now is a "very important initial line of defense," Dr. Paul Burton, chief medical officer for the vaccine-maker Moderna, said Monday.

Burton said Moderna and other vaccine companies are testing existing COVID-19 vaccines to determine how effective they are against the omicron variant.

"If we need to manufacture an omicron-specific variant, it's going to take some weeks, two to three months is probably what we're looking at to be able to really begin to manufacture," Burton told ABC.

Noting that the new variant, like earlier ones, sprang up overseas in areas with lower vaccination rates, Biden said it was both a moral imperative and in America's self-interest to speed up global vaccinations.

He noted that the U.S. has already donated more than 275 million doses, more than the rest of the world combined, and is on pace to deliver more than 1.1 billion doses globally by September 2022.

"Now we need the rest of the world to step up as well," Biden said.

"We can't let up until the world is vaccinated."



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