WHO warns new virus variant poses “very high” risk


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GENEVA – The World Health Organization warned on Monday that the global risk of the omicron variant is “very high” based on early evidence, saying the mutated coronavirus could lead to outbreaks with “serious consequences.”

“Depending on these characteristics, there could be future outbreaks of COVID-19, which could have serious consequences, depending on a number of factors, including where the outbreaks may take place,” he said. he added. “The overall overall risk (…) is assessed as very high.”

The warning came as a growing circle of countries around the world have reported cases of the variant and decided to slam their doors as scientists rush to figure out just how dangerous this version could be. .

Japan has announced that it will ban entry to all foreign visitors, joining Israel in doing so just days after the variant was identified by researchers in South Africa. Morocco has banned all inbound flights. Other countries, including the United States and members of the European Union, have decided to ban travelers from southern Africa.

If the virus turns out to be dangerous as feared, “the impact on vulnerable populations would be substantial, particularly in countries with low vaccination coverage,” the WHO said, noting that no deaths linked to omicron has not been reported so far.

Spain has become one of the last countries to report its first confirmed case of the variant. While the vast majority of infections have been seen in travelers arriving from abroad, cases in Portugal and Scotland have raised concerns that the variant is already spreading locally.

“A lot of us might think we’re done with COVID-19. It is not over with us, ”warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the WHO.

Days after the variant sent shivers through the financial world nearly two years after the start of the pandemic that killed more than 5 million people, markets had mixed reactions on Monday, with European stocks and prices rebounding. oil and Wall Street opening up, while Asian markets fell further.

US President Joe Biden called the omicron variant a cause for concern but “no cause for panic.” He said he was not considering a blanket lockdown in the United States and instead urged vaccinations and the wearing of masks.

The infections have highlighted the difficulty of controlling the virus in a globalized world of air travel and open borders. Yet many countries are trying to do just that, against the urging of the WHO, which has noted that border closures often have a limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.

Some have argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant. Little is known about it, especially if it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness, or more able to escape 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 has shown it is learning,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, targeting South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. “South Africa’s analytical work and transparency and the sharing of its findings were essential to enable a rapid global response. It has undoubtedly saved many lives.

At the end of last week, von der Leyen succeeded in pushing the 27 EU countries to agree to ban flights from seven southern African countries, much like many others are doing. country.

Cases had already been reported in EU countries in Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands before Portuguese authorities identified 13 omicron infections among members of the professional football team Belenenses. Authorities reported that a member had recently visited South Africa. A weekend match was abandoned at half-time for lack of players.

The first case of documents in Spain was detected in a traveler who returned from South Africa on Sunday after stopping in Amsterdam, tweeted one of Madrid’s main public hospitals.

And after Scotland reported its first six cases, Prime Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned “there may already be community transmission of this variant.”

Taking no risk, Japan, which has yet to detect any cases of omicron, has reimposed border controls it relaxed earlier this month.

“We are taking this step as an emergency precautionary measure to avoid the worst-case scenario in Japan,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. The new measures begin on Tuesday.

Israel has also decided to ban foreigners from entering, and Morocco has said it will suspend all inbound flights for two weeks from Monday.

And Britain has extended its COVID-19 recall program to all people 18 and over, making millions more eligible. So far, booster shots have only been available to people 40 years of age and older and those particularly vulnerable to the virus. The UK has reported a dozen cases of omicron.

Despite global concern, scientists have warned that it is still not clear whether omicron is more alarming than the other versions.

So far, South African doctors are reporting that patients are mostly suffering from mild symptoms, but they are warning that it is still early days. Additionally, most new cases involve people in their 20s and 30s, who typically do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.

“We have seen a sharp increase in cases over the past 10 days. So far, these were mostly very mild cases, with patients showing flu-like symptoms: dry cough, fever, night sweats, a lot of body pain, ”said Dr Unben Pillay, general practitioner in the hospital. Gauteng province, where 81% of the new cases were reported.

The variant provided further proof of what experts have said for a long time: that no continent will be safe until the entire 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 accurately fulfilled the predictions of scientists who warned that high transmission of the virus in areas with limited vaccine access would accelerate its course,” said Dr Richard Hatchett, chief of CEPI, one of the founders of the UN-supported global vaccine sharing initiative COVAX.

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Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo, Casert from Brussels. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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