New findings on the Omicron variant of the coronavirus made it clear on Tuesday that the emerging threat crept into countries before their defenses were lifted, as two distant countries announced their first cases and a third reported its presence before. that South African officials do not sound the alarm.
The RIVM health institute in the Netherlands found Omicron in samples dating from November 19 and 23. The World Health Organization said South Africa first reported the variant to the United Nations health agency on November 24. Meanwhile, Japan and France have reported their first cases of a new variant that once again forced the world to switch between hopes of a return to normal and fears the worst is yet to come.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including how contagious it could be, but a WHO official said on Tuesday that there could soon be a surge in infections in parts of southern Africa. .
It’s unclear where or when the variant first appeared, and the Dutch announcement blurs the timeline even further. Earlier, the Netherlands said it had found the variant among passengers arriving from South Africa on Friday – but the new cases predate that.
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That hasn’t stopped wary countries from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors from southern Africa.
Canada is one of them. The Canadian federal government on Friday imposed a series of travel restrictions on several countries in southern Africa, with more to come. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau hinted on Tuesday that his government was considering “very carefully” possible next steps, such as more restrictions.
So far, five cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant have been confirmed in Canada.
Measures taken by Canada and other countries, in similar capacities, have been criticized by South Africa and the WHO has spoken out against them, noting their limited effect.
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The latest news, however, has made it increasingly clear that travel bans would struggle to stop the spread of the variant. The Netherlands, Belgium and France have now all reported cases in people who were in their countries before the European Union imposed flight restrictions.
Japan has announced that it will ban all foreign visitors from Tuesday, but that turned out to be too late. He confirmed his first case that day, a Namibian diplomat recently arrived from his country.
German authorities, meanwhile, said they had an Omicron infection in a man who had never been abroad or had contact with anyone.
The WHO warned Monday that the global risk of Omicron is “very high”. and that early evidence suggests it may be more contagious.
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The growing number of cases attributed to Omicron in Botswana and South Africa suggests that this could be the first sign of a “sharp increase,” Dr Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, regional virologist for the Associated Press, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. ‘World Health Organization. .
“It is possible that we are really seeing a serious doubling or tripling of cases as we go along or as the week unfolds,” Gumede-Moeletsi said.
After a period of low transmission in South Africa, new cases started to increase rapidly in mid-November. Currently, the country confirms nearly 3,000 new infections per day.
Of particular concern is the concentration of Omicron cases among college students in the capital of Pretoria as this group is very sociable – and will soon be visiting their homes at the end of the year and mingling with friends and family.
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South African doctors report that patients have mostly suffered from mild symptoms so far, but many of them are young adults who typically don’t get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.
Still, many officials have tried to allay fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get all parts of the world vaccinated.
The head of the European Medicines Agency, Emer Cooke, insisted the EU of 27 countries was well prepared for the variant. While it’s unclear how effective the current vaccines are against Omicron, Cooke said injections could be adjusted within three or four months if needed.
The latest variant makes vaccination efforts even more important, said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, noting that many have done so before “as long as the virus replicates somewhere it could mutate.”
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Faced with the new variant, some have introduced new measures to mitigate the spread.
England has again made face covering mandatory on public transport and in shops, banks and hairdressers. And a month before Christmas, UK Health Security Agency chief Jenny Harries urged people not to socialize if they don’t need it.
And after COVID-19 has already resulted in a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers were starting to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Omicron “will certainly bring challenges in terms of prevention and control.”
What we know about the Omicron variant
Global markets have continued to rock on every medical news item, whether worrying or reassuring.
Global stocks mostly slipped on Tuesday as investors cautiously assessed the damage Omicron could cause to the global economy.
Some analysts believe that a severe economic downturn, like the one that occurred last year, will likely be avoided because many people have been vaccinated. But they also believe the return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been significantly delayed.
In a world already pissed off by the more contagious delta variant that has once again filled hospitals in many places, even in some highly vaccinated countries, the latest developments have underscored the need for the whole world to get their hands on vaccines.
“We have vaccination rates in the United States, in Europe of 50, 60, 70 percent, depending on exactly who you are counting. And in Africa it’s more like 14, 15% or less, ”Blinken said.
“We know, we know, we know that none of us will be totally safe until everyone is.”
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