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World races to contain new COVID variant as cases spread to Europe

Several European nations on Saturday announced the first cases of a highly infectious new coronavirus strain, as governments worldwide began pulling down the shutters to contain the new omicron variant.

Britain, Germany and Italy confirmed their first cases of the new COVID-19 strain, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for the virus.

South Africa complained it was being “punished” with air travel bans for having first detected the strain, which the World Health Organization (WHO) has termed a “variant of concern.”

A series of countries across the world began restricting travel from the region, to try to head off any threat to global efforts against the pandemic.

Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, particularly whether it can evade existing vaccines. It has already proved to be more transmissible than the dominant delta variant.

Travelers thronged Johannesburg International Airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many had cut short holidays, rushing back from South African safaris and vineyards.

“It’s ridiculous, we will always be having new variants,” British tourist David Good told said, passport in hand. “South Africa found it, but it’s probably all over the world already.”

The virus has already slipped through the net, with cases discovered in Europe, Hong Kong and Israel as well as in southern Africa.

Israel said it would ban the entry of all foreigners into the country and reintroduce counterterrorism phone-tracking technology to contain the spread of the variant.

Britain on Saturday announced tougher entry rules for all arriving passengers and the return of a masks mandate, after confirming its first two cases of the new omicron strain.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, speaking at a news conference, said face masks would again be required in shops and on public transport.

England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty, said at the same news conference as Johnson that there was still much uncertainty around omicron, but “there is a reasonable chance that at least there will be some degree of vaccine escape with this variant.”

Germany confirmed its first two cases of the omicron variant in travelers who arrived at Munich Airport from South Africa.

Italy announced its first case of the new COVID-19 strain in a traveler from Mozambique.

And Dutch officials said the new omicron variant was “probably” among 61 passengers who had arrived on two flights from South Africa a day before and who tested positive for COVID-19.

The two KLM flights, which took off before the Dutch announced their ban on travelers from the region, were being kept quarantined in a hotel.

In the U.S., a White House official said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the omicron situation and that health officials were monitoring events.

Biden administration health adviser Anthony Fauci said Saturday he wouldn’t be surprised if the variant is already in the country but is yet to be detected. “When you have a virus like this, it almost inevitability it is going to go, essentially, all over,” Fauci said on NBC.

Already on Friday, Belgium announced its first case in an unvaccinated person returning from abroad.

The Czech Republic was carrying out further tests on a woman who had traveled from Namibia and was suspected to have the new variant, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said.

The WHO said it could take several weeks to understand the variant, which was initially known as B.1.1.529, It cautioned against travel curbs while scientific evidence remains scant.

South Africa called the travel curbs “draconian” and on Saturday said the flight bans were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”

“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The main countries targeted by the shutdown include South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini (Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Biden, meanwhile, said richer countries should donate more COVID-19 vaccines and give up intellectual property protections to manufacture more doses worldwide.

“The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,” he said.

But with memories still fresh of the way global air travel helped the spread of COVID-19 after it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, countries clamped down swiftly.

Australia and Belgium became the latest to act, banning all flights from nine southern African countries.

South Korea and Thailand restricted flights from eight countries, as did the United States, Brazil, Canada and Saudi Arabia.

EU officials agreed in an emergency meeting to urge all 27 nations in the bloc to restrict travel from southern Africa. Many members had already done so.

The World Trade Organization called off a ministerial conference, its biggest gathering in four years, at the last minute Friday due to the new variant.

Vaccine manufacturers have held out hope that they can modify current vaccines to target the omicron variant.

Germany’s BioNTech and U.S. drugmaker Pfizer said they expect data “in two weeks at the latest” to show if their jab can be adjusted.

Moderna said it would develop a booster specific to the new variant.

The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on disparities in how far the world’s population is vaccinated. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7% of people in low-income countries have received their first COVID-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.

Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Vaccine Alliance that with the WHO co-leads the COVAX initiative to push for equitable distribution of vaccines, said this was essential to ward off the emergence of more coronavirus variants.

“While we still need to know more about omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged,” he said in a statement.

“We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world’s population, not just the wealthy parts.”

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