New Omicron variant sparks global concern

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New Omicron variant sparks global concern

REUTERS Sumaya Hisham File Photo

November 27, Reuters - Australia and several other countries have imposed restrictions on travel from southern Africa on Saturday after the discovery of the new Omicron coronaviruses variant sparked global concern and caused a market sell-off.

Authorities in Amsterdam said 61 out of around 600 people who arrived in the Dutch city on two flights from South Africa on Friday had tested positive for coronaviruses. Health authorities were carrying out further tests to see if those cases involved the new variant. Omicron, a variant of concern by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants of the disease.

It was first discovered in South Africa and has been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.

A Minister in the German state of Hesse said on Saturday that the variant had very likely arrived in Germany, in a traveller returning from South Africa. The Czech health authorities said they were looking into a suspected case of the variant in a person who spent time in Namibia.

Financial markets plunged on Friday, particularly stocks of airlines and others in the travel sector, because investors worried that the variant could cause another surge in the pandemic and stall a global recovery. Oil prices fell by about $10 a barrel.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average DJI closed down 2.5%, its worst day since October 2020, and European stocks STOXX had their worst day in 17 months.

It could take weeks for scientists to fully understand the variant's mutations and whether existing vaccines and treatments are effective against it. Omicron is the fifth variant of concern designated by the WHO.

Travel restrictions or travel restrictions on southern Africa were announced on Friday by many countries around the world, including the United States, Brazil, Canada, and European Union nations, although they say travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating globally.

On Saturday, Australia said it would ban non-citizens who have been in nine southern African countries from entering and will require 14 day quarantines for Australian citizens and their dependents returning from there. Japan is going to extend its border controls on three more African countries after it imposed restrictions on travel from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho on Friday.

Sri Lanka, Thailand and Oman also announced travel restrictions on southern African nations.

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID 19 infections, and some have reintroduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lock-downs.

In Britain, the main opposition Labour Party called for a faster booster vaccine programme, saying the gap between the second vaccine dose and booster jab should be cut from six to five months.

The new variant is a wake-up call, said Alex Norris, Labour's junior health spokesman. We need to bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay. 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.

Failure to help vaccinate sub-Saharan Africa – still barely 4% of the population - left us exposed to a new, more virulent COVIDvariant, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva on Friday.

Omicron's news is an urgent reminder of why we need to do more to vaccinate the world.