Omicron shuts borders across the globe
November 29 2021 12:04 AM
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International check-in counters stand empty as several airlines stopped flying out of South Africa amid the spread of Omicron at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, where (right) a passenger tries to find a flight yesterday. (Reuters)

AFP/The Hague

A new, heavily mutated Covid-19 variant spread across the globe yesterday, shutting borders and renewing curbs as the EU chief said governments faced a “race against time” to understand the strain.
Indonesia announced similar entry restrictions yesterday and Angola became the first southern African country to suspend all flights from its regional neighbours Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.
Dubbed Omicron, the strain has cast doubt on global efforts to battle the pandemic because of fears that it is highly infectious, forcing countries to reimpose measures many had hoped were a thing of the past.
“We know we are now in a race against time,” European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said, adding that vaccine manufacturers needed two to three weeks “to get a full picture of the quality of the mutations”.
Dutch health authorities said they had identified at least 13 cases of Omicron among 61 quarantined passengers who tested positive for coronavirus after arriving from South Africa.
“The investigation has not yet been completed. The new variant may be found in more test samples,” the National Institute for Public Health warned.
Despite the alarm, in Austria tens of thousands rallied to protest against the government’s introduction of compulsory vaccination — the first EU country to do so.
Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said it was “a minor interference” compared to the alternative for a country with one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe.
With many European nations, including Germany and France, already bringing back curbs to counter surges in infections.
As scientists race to determine the level of threat posed by the new strain — particularly whether it can evade existing vaccines — a South African doctor said dozens of her patients suspected of Omicron infection had only shown mild symptoms such as fatigue.
Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, who alerted health officials to a “clinical picture that doesn’t fit Delta”, told AFP she had seen 30 patients over the past 10 days who tested positive for Covid-19.
They had fully recovered without hospitalisation.
Coetzee said it was unfortunate that Omicron had been hyped as “this extremely dangerous virus variant” when its virulency was still unknown.
A long list of countries have already imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa, where it was first detected, including key travel hub Qatar, the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and The Netherlands.
Indonesia announced similar entry restrictions yesterday and Angola became the first southern African country to suspend all flights from its regional neighbours Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.
Morocco said it was halting incoming flights for two weeks from Monday.
Israel announced some of the strictest curbs, closing the borders to all foreigners — just four weeks after reopening to tourists following a prolonged closure due to Covid.
“We are raising a red flag,” Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said. Some 10mn PCR test kits would be ordered to stem the “very dangerous” strain. Israeli citizens will be required to present a negative PCR test and quarantine for three days if they have been vaccinated against the virus and seven days if they have not.
But the new strain has already slipped through the net, and has now been found everywhere from The Netherlands to the UK, Hong Kong to Australia, where authorities yesterday said they had detected it for the first time in two passengers from southern Africa who were tested after flying into Sydney.



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