New findings on the omicron variant of the coronavirus made it clear on Tuesday that the emerging threat crept into countries long before their defenses were in place, as two distant countries announced their first cases and a third reported its presence before South African officials 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 the new variant which once again forced the world to switch between hopes of a return to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.
It is not yet clear where and when the variant first appeared or how contagious it could be, but that hasn’t stopped wary countries rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming. southern Africa. These measures have been criticized by South Africa and the WHO has spoken out against them, noting their limited effect.
The latest news, however, has made it increasingly clear that travel bans would struggle to stop the spread of the variant. German authorities said he had an omicron infection in a man who had never been abroad or had contact with anyone.
The WHO warned on Monday that the global risk of omicron is “very high” and that early evidence suggests it may be more contagious. Others sent more reassuring messages, like the head of the European Medicines Agency Emer Cooke, who insisted that the 27-country European Union 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.
But nearly two years after the virus first held the world in its grip, the current response echoed the chaos of the early days in many ways, including random travel bans and a misunderstanding of who was at risk and where.
Many officials have tried to allay fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get vaccines to all regions of the world.
The latest variant makes those 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.”
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 director 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.”
Japan had announced that it would 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.
Global markets have continued to rock on every medical news item, whether worrying or reassuring.
Global stocks slipped for the most part on Tuesday as investors cautiously assess the damage the 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%, depending on exactly who you count. 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 completely safe until everyone is.”
PA journalists from around the world contributed.