COVID variant spreads to more countries as world on alert

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Just days after being identified in South Africa, the new potentially more contagious Omicron version of the coronavirus arrived in more European countries on Saturday, leaving governments around the world scrambling to contain the spread.

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The UK tightened its rules on wearing masks and testing international arrivals after two cases were found on Saturday. New cases were confirmed in Germany and Italy on Saturday, with Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong also reporting that the variant was found in travelers.

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Due to fears that the new version has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines, there are growing concerns around the world that the pandemic and related lockdown restrictions will last longer than expected.

Nearly two years after the start of the pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 5 million people worldwide, countries are on high alert. Many have already placed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa because they want to buy time to assess whether the Omicron version is more permeable than the current flagship Delta version.

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In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was necessary to take “targeted and precautionary measures” after two people tested positive for the new version in England.

“Right now it is the responsible course of action to slow the spread and spread of this new version and to maximize our defenses,” he told a news conference.

Among the measures announced, Johnson said anyone arriving in England would have to undergo a PCR test for COVID-19 on the second day after their arrival and self-isolate until a negative test is provided. And if someone tests positive for the Omicron variant, it said their close contacts will have to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status — the current quarantine rules mandate that close contacts are fully vaccinated. exempted from.

He also said the wearing of masks would be required in shops and on public transport and said the independent group of scientists who advise the British government on the rollout of coronavirus vaccines has been asked to expedite the vaccination programme. This may include expanding the booster program to younger age groups, reducing the time period between the second dose and the booster, and allowing older children to take the second dose.

“From today we are going to promote the booster campaign,” he said.

The UK Department of Health said the two cases detected in the UK were linked and involved travel to southern Africa. Of the two new cases, one was in the southeastern English city of Brentwood, while the other was in the central city of Nottingham. The two confirmed cases are self-isolating with their homes while contact tracing and targeted testing takes place.

The British government also added four more countries – Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia – to the country’s travel red list from Sunday. Six others – Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe were added on Friday. This means anyone arriving from those destinations will have to be quarantined.

Several countries have imposed sanctions over the past few days on various southern African countries including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States. This goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned against any exaggeration before the variant is fully studied.

Despite the ban on flights, there is growing concern that this version has already been widely preferred around the world.

Italy and Germany were the latest to report confirmed cases from the Omicron version.

An Italian who had gone to Mozambique on business landed in Rome on 11 November and returned to his home near Naples. Italian news agency LaPress said he and five family members, including two school children, have tested positive. All in good condition with mild symptoms in the Naples suburb of Caserta.

The version was confirmed by Sacco Hospital in Milan, and Italy’s National Institute of Health said the man had received two doses of the vaccine. Italy’s health ministry is urging all regions to conduct sequencing to track down the virus and the new type of cases identified for the first time in South Africa.

In Germany, the Munich-based Microbiology Center Max von Petenkofer Institute said the Omicron variant was confirmed in two passengers who took off from South Africa on 24 November. The head of the institute, Oliver Kepler, said the genome was not yet complete, but it “has been proven without a doubt that it is of this type,” German news agency DPA reported.

The Dutch Public Health Institute said the Omicron variant was “probably found in several tested individuals” who were separated after arriving in Amsterdam on Friday on two flights from South Africa. The institute said in a statement that further sequencing analysis is underway to ensure that it is the new variant. The results were expected on Sunday. A total of 61 people were screened.

Israel said it had detected the new strain in a traveler who returned from Malawi and was tracing 800 passengers who had recently returned from southern African countries.

The rapidly spreading variant among young people in South Africa has worried health professionals, although there was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease.

Several pharmaceutical firms, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, said they have plans to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of Omicron. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said they expect to be able to replace their vaccine in about 100 days.

Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective in preventing severe disease from the Omicron variant, noting that most mutations appear in similar regions. in other variants.

He told BBC radio: “At least from a conjectural standpoint we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a newer variant for severe disease, but in reality we will have to wait several weeks for it to be confirmed.” “

Some experts said the emergence of the variant shows how the hoarding of vaccines from wealthy countries threatens to prolong the pandemic.

Less than 6% of people in Africa are fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can accelerate the spread of the virus, providing more opportunities for it to develop into a dangerous form.

“One of the major factors driving the emergence of the variant may be low vaccination rates in some parts of the world, and the WHO warns that none of us are safe until we are all safe and taken care of.” must be given,” said one professor, Peter Openshaw. of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.

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