Taking an act-now-ask-questions-later approach, countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be.
Japan announced it would bar entry of all foreign visitors, joining Israel in doing so just days after the variant was identified by researchers in South Africa. Morocco banned all incoming flights. Other countries, including the US and European Union members, have moved to prohibit travelers arriving from southern Africa.
Travelers infected with the new version have turned up in a widening array of countries over the past few days, and new cases in Portugal and Scotland have raised fears that the variant may already be spreading locally.
"Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It’s not done with us,” warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization.
Days after the variant sent a shudder through the financial world nearly two years into the pandemic that has killed over 5 million people, markets had mixed reactions Monday, with European stocks and oil prices rebounding and Wall Street opening higher, while Asian markets fell further.
The infections showed the difficulty in keeping the virus in check in a globalized world of jet travel and open borders. Yet, many countries tried to do just that, even against the urging of the WHO, which noted that border closings often have limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.
Some argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant. Little is known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade vaccines.
While the initial global response to COVID-19 was criticized as slow and haphazard, the reaction to the new variant came quickly.
“This time the world showed it is learning,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise. “South Africa’s analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response. It no doubt saved many lives.”
The WHO has praised Botswana as well as South Africa for quickly alerting the world to the presence of the new variant, and many have warned that the countries should not be punished for their speed.
But that did not hold von der Leyen back from successfully pushing the 27-nation EU to agree on a ban on flights from seven southern African nations over the weekend, similar to measures many other countries have taken. On Monday, EU members Spain and Poland followed through by announcing travel and quarantine restrictions.
Cases had already been reported in EU nations Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands before Portuguese authorities identified 13 cases of omicron among team members of the Belenenses professional soccer club. Authorities reported that one member had recently traveled to South Africa. Its game against Benfica over the weekend had be abandoned at halftime for lack of players.
Quarantining also became an issue when Dutch military police had to arrest a husband and wife who left a hotel where they were being held after testing positive and boarded a plane bound for Spain.
“Quarantine is not obligatory, but we assume people will act responsibly,” spokeswoman Petra Faber said.
And after Scotland reported its first six cases, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned that “there might already be some community transmission of this variant.”
Taking no chances, Japan, which has yet to detect any omicron cases, reimposed border controls that it had eased earlier this month.
“We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. The new measures begin Tuesday.
Israel likewise decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday.
Despite the global worry, scientists cautioned that it is still unclear whether omicron is more alarming than other versions of the virus.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the US National Institutes of Health, said no data as yet suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous versions.
So far, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms, but they warn that it is still early and that most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older people.
“We’ve seen a sharp increase in cases for the past 10 days. So far they have mostly been very mild cases, with patients having flu-like symptoms: dry coughs, fever, night sweats, a lot of body pains,” said Dr. Unben Pillay, a general practitioner in Gauteng province, where 81% of the new cases have been reported.
The variant has provided further proof of what experts have been long been saying: that no continent will be safe until the whole globe has been sufficiently vaccinated. The more the virus is allowed to spread, the more opportunities it has to mutate.
“The emergence of the omicron variant has fulfilled, in a precise way, the predictions of the scientists who warned that the elevated transmission of the virus in areas with limited access to vaccine would speed its evolution,” said Dr. Richard Hatchett, head of CEPI, one of the founders of the UN-backed global vaccine sharing initiative COVAX.
In some parts of the world, authorities are moving in the opposite direction.
In Malaysia, officials went ahead with the partial reopening of a bridge connecting it to Singapore. And New Zealand announced it will press ahead with plans to reopen internally after months of shutdown, though it is also restricting travel from nine southern African nations.
“We’ve come through the past two years of COVID in better shape than nearly anywhere in the world,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said, pointing to low death rates, a growing economy and high vaccination rates.
By Associated Press writers Raf Casert and Mari Yamaguchi, who reported from Tokyo. Associated Press journalists from around the world contributed to this report.
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