High alert: World scurries to contain new COVID variant

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With each passing hour, new restrictions were being imposed on travel from countries in southern Africa as the world contained a new version of the coronavirus, which has the potential to become more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines.

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Several countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, joined countries including the European Union and the UK to impose restrictions on southern African countries in response to warnings on the transmission of the new version – on advice from the World Health Organization. Against. Pharmaceutical companies expressed optimism that they can tailor their vaccines to deal with the new variant, although this will apparently take some time.

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Despite the ban on flights, there is growing concern that this version has already been widely preferred around the world. Cases have been reported in travelers in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong.

On Saturday, Britain confirmed two linked cases of the new Omicron variant, while Germany indicated it contained a probable case. Dutch authorities are also investigating the new version after 61 passengers on two flights from South Africa tested positive for COVID-19.

The global health body has named the new variant Omicron, which it labels a variant of concern because of its high number of mutations and some early evidence that it carries a higher level of infection than other variants. This means that people who contracted and recovered COVID-19 may be subject to catching it again. It may take weeks to know if existing vaccines are less effective against it.

With so much uncertainty about the Omicron variant and the likelihood of scientists presenting their findings for a few weeks, countries around the world are taking a safety-first approach, in the knowledge that past outbreaks of pandemics are partly from loose limits. have been affected. policies

“It’s spreading fast,” US President Joe Biden said of the new edition on Friday, a day after millions of American families celebrated the resumption of Thanksgiving celebrations and the feeling that normal life is at least Was coming back for less vaccinations. Announcing the new travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I have decided that we are going to be cautious.”

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.

Dutch authorities have isolated 61 people who tested positive for COVID-19 upon their arrival in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday. They are checking further to see if any travelers have the Omron version.

The planes arrived in the Netherlands from Johannesburg and Cape Town soon after the Dutch government banned flights to southern African countries.

539 passengers who tested negative were allowed to return home or continue traveling to other countries. Under government rules, people who live in the Netherlands and are allowed to return home must self-isolate for at least five days.

In the UK, Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that two people have tested positive with the Omicron variant in the southeastern city of Chelmsford and the central county of Nottinghamshire. He said the cases were linked and related to travel from southern Africa.

Meanwhile, a German official said it was “highly likely” that the Omicron version had already arrived in the country.

Hesse state health minister Kai Klos, which also includes Frankfurt, said in a tweet that “multiple mutations of Omicron” were found on Friday night in a passenger returning from South Africa who was isolated at home. The sequencing of the test had not yet been completed.

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. In just two weeks, Omicron has turned a period of low transmission into rapid development in the country.

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 more effective in preventing serious disease than the Omicron variant.

Most of the mutations appear in the same regions as the other types, he said.

“It tells you that despite those mutations present in other forms, vaccines continue to prevent serious disease because we have gone through alpha, beta, gamma and delta,” he told BBC radio. “At least from a speculative 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 confirmation.”

He added that it is “very unlikely that a reboot of an epidemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.”

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 key factors for the emergence of variants 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 protected and that attention should be paid to ,” said Peter Openshaw, a professor. Experimental Medicine at Imperial College London.

“The global vaccine rollout is important,” he said.

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Pilas contributed from London. Geir Moulsen in Berlin contributed to this report.

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