The World is on the Alert after Discovery of a New Variant of COVID-19 – “Omicron”
A new, potentially more contagious variant of the coronavirus is already circulating in Europe. A number of countries have banned the entry of passengers from southern Africa, where the Omicron variant was found, in the past two days.
Britain, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic yesterday identified the first cases of people infected with this variant and announced new measures to control the infection.
Fears of the new variant and the potential for it to be more resistant to the protection provided by vaccines are raising concerns that the pandemic and related lockdowns and restrictions may last longer than expected. Nearly two years after the start of the pandemic, which claimed the lives of more than 5 million people globally, countries around the world are on the alert. On Friday, a number of countries banned flights from South Africa and neighboring countries to allow time to assess whether this option is more contagious than the currently dominant Delta option.
The Republic of South Africa regretted the closure of the borders of dozens of countries for its citizens and travelers and said that the discovery of the new version of Omicron coronavirus thanks to the work of South African scientists should not be "punished" in this way. "This latest series of travel bans is actually punishing South Africa for its progress in genomic sequencing and its ability to discover new variants more quickly. Brilliant scientific work must be met with applause, not punishment," the government said in communiqué, quoted by AFP.
Israel became the first country in the world to announce the complete closure of its borders to foreigners for 14 days. In addition to the travel ban, Israel's Internal Security Service, Shin Bet, will put in place a telephone tracking system commonly used for counter-terrorism purposes to monitor the movements of people who have been proven to be carriers of the new variant of the virus.
Two cases were identified in the UK yesterday, a day after London put the Republic of South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Esvatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia on its red travel list. "We will require anyone entering the UK to have a urinal test by the end of the second day after arrival and to isolate themselves until they get a negative result," Prime Minister Boris Johnson told a news conference.
An Italian who traveled to Mozambique on business and returned to Italy on November 11th became the first person in the country to test positive for the new version. He was immunized with two doses of the vaccine. All of his family of five, including two children, have tested positive, have mild symptoms of the disease and have been quarantined in the suburbs of Naples, where they live, local media reported, quoted by the Associated Press.
The Max von Petenkofer Institute of Microbiology in Munich said Omicron had been found in two people who arrived on a flight from South Africa on November 24.
A number of pharmaceutical companies, including Astra Zeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, have said they plan to adapt their vaccines to provide optimal protection against Omicron. Pfizer and its partner Biontech have said they can do so in about 100 days. Professor Andrew Pollard, head of the vaccine research team at Oxford University, which developed the Astra Zeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism on BBC radio that the existing vaccines would be effective against the new version and would not allow severe flow of covid.
Less than 6 percent of people in Africa are fully immune to covid, which experts say creates a favorable environment for the virus to evolve. "One of the key factors in the emergence of options may be the low level of vaccination in parts of the world. Therefore, the WHO warns that none of us is safe until we are all safe," said Peter Oppenshaw, a professor of experimental medicine from London's Imperial College.
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