Almost two years since the beginning of the pandemic, the world again races to contain a new variant of the coronavirus and countries on Friday rushed to suspend travel from southern Africa where the new mutation was discovered.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it was designating the B11529 variant, named Omicron, as being “of concern” while they seek to determine if it is more transmissible or infectious than other variants.
Early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said.
In response to the variant’s discovery in southern Africa, the United States, Canada and a host of other countries joined the European Union in restricting travel for visitors from that region.
The United States will restrict travel from South Africa and neighbouring countries effective Monday, a senior Biden administration official said.
Going further, Canada said it was closing its borders to those countries, following bans on flights announced by Britain, the European Union and others.
South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla called the travel restrictions “unjustified”, though he also said preliminary studies suggested the new variant may be more transmissible.
“This new variant of the Covid-19 virus is very worrying. It is the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen to date,” said Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Britain’s Warwick University.
“Some of the mutations that are similar to changes we’ve seen in other variants of concern are associated with enhanced transmissibility and with partial resistance to immunity induced by vaccination or natural infection.”
Those worries pummelled financial markets, especially stocks of airlines and others in the travel sector, and oil, which tumbled by about US$10 a barrel.
Meanwhile, the scramble to ban air travel from southern Africa left hundreds of passengers on two KLM flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg stranded on the tarmac for hours at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport before they were transferred for testing.
Several other countries including India, Japan, Israel, Turkey, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates also toughened travel curbs.
In Geneva the WHO – whose experts on Friday discussed the risks that the variant presents – had earlier warned against travel curbs for now.
“It’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses here,” said the WHO’s emergencies director Mike Ryan, praising South Africa’s public health institutions for picking up the new variant of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19.
The variant has a spike protein that is dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that vaccines are based on, the UK Health Security Agency said, raising fears about how current vaccines will fare.
“As scientists have described, (this is) the most significant variant they’ve encountered to date,” British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News.
The coronavirus has swept the world in the two years since it was first identified in central China, infecting almost 260 million people and killing 5.4 million.
Discovery of the new variant comes as Europe and the United States enter winter, with more people gathering indoors in the run-up to Christmas, providing a breeding ground for infection. (Source: CNA)