Omicron already taking over in South Africa as countries tighten borders

A health worker administers a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Cape Town, South Africa. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

JOHANNESBURG (REUTERS) - The heavily mutated Omicron variant of the coronavirus is rapidly becoming dominant in South Africa, less than four weeks after being detected there, authorities said on Wednesday (Dec 1), as other countries tightened their borders against the new threat.

The United States identified its first case of the new variant in a fully vaccinated traveller who had returned from South Africa on Nov 22 and had mild symptoms, top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said.

Hours earlier, airlines in the United States had been told to hand over the names of passengers from parts of southern Africa hit by Omicron, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) said had now reached at least 24 countries, with cases ranging from mild to severe.

Early indications suggesting that Omicron may be markedly more contagious than previous variants have rattled financial markets, fearful that new restrictions around the world could choke off a tentative recovery from the economic ravages of the pandemic.

South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said Omicron's profile and early epidemiological data suggested it was able to evade some immunity, but that existing vaccines should still protect against severe disease and death.

It said 74 per cent of all the virus genomes it had sequenced last month had been of the new variant, which was announced a week ago but was first found in a sample taken on Nov 8 in Gauteng, South Africa's most populous province.

The number of new cases reported in South Africa doubled from Tuesday to Wednesday.

WHO epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove told a briefing that data on how contagious Omicron was should be available "within days".

BioNTech's chief executive officer said the vaccine it makes in a partnership with Pfizer was likely to offer strong protection against severe disease from Omicron.

'Prepare for the worst'

The president of the European Union's executive Commission said there was a "race against time" to stave off the new variant while scientists establish how dangerous it is. The EU brought forward the start of its vaccine rollout for five-to-11-year-olds by a week to Dec 13.

"Prepare for the worst, hope for the best," Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference.

She said that, according to scientists, full vaccination and a booster shot provided the strongest possible protection - a view echoed by Fauci.

But WHO emergencies director Mike Ryan criticised developed countries pushing booster shots for large parts of their fully vaccinated populations when even vulnerable people in many poorer regions had had no vaccination at all.

"There is no evidence that I'm aware of that will suggest that boosting the entire population is going to necessarily provide any greater protection for otherwise healthy individuals against hospitalisation or death," he said.

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Britain and the United States have both expanded their booster programmes in response to the new variant, highlighting the disparity between massive vaccination pushes in rich nations and sparse inoculation in the developing world.

The WHO has noted many times that the coronavirus will keep producing new variants for as long as it is allowed to circulate freely in large unvaccinated populations.

Travel restrictions

Some 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures to guard against Omicron as of Nov 28, the WHO said.

"Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,"the WHO said, while advising those who were unwell, at risk or 60 years and over and unvaccinated to postpone travel.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres slammed what he called "travel apartheid".

The United States has barred nearly all foreigners who have been in one of eight southern African countries.

Hong Kong added Japan, Portugal and Sweden to its travel restrictions, while Uzbekistan said it would suspend flights with Hong Kong as well as South Africa. Malaysia temporarily barred travellers from eight African countries and said Britain and the Netherlands could join the list.

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Late on Tuesday, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) directed airlines to disclose names and other information of passengers who have been to those countries.

Fitch Ratings said it had lowered its global air passenger traffic forecasts for 2021 and 2022, with the emergence of new variants highlighting the unpredictability of the situation.

"It feels a little bit like we are back to where we were a year ago," said Deidre Fulton, a partner at consultancy Midas Aviation, at an industry webinar.

"And that's not a great prospect for the industry and beyond."

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