Covid: the world barricades itself in the face of the Omicron variant

On all continents, many states are closing themselves off to nationals from southern African countries, in the hope of stemming the spread of the new Omicron variant. Europe, already facing a fifth wave, considers the risk “high to very high” even though little is known about the dangerousness of Omicron.

“Omicron” is the name given by the World Health Organization to the new world nightmare. This variant of Covid-19 identified by South African researchers, who made their discovery public last Thursday, is leading the world to barricade itself.

On all continents, many states are closed to the countries of southern Africa including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, but also Zambia, Malawi or Angola as appropriate. They also tighten the entry rules for all travelers.

The United States, which had just reopened to the whole world in early November, will close its borders from Monday to travelers coming from this region of the world. Just like Australia, the Gulf countries, Morocco and many European states.

Israel, where a case has been confirmed in a traveler returning from Malawi, is taking the most radical measures: it prohibits from Sunday evening the entry of all foreigners into its territory and requires its vaccinated nationals to have a PCR test and three isolation days (seven for non-vaccinated).

“Increased risk of reinfection”

While the pandemic has already claimed more than five million lives worldwide since the end of 2019, the discovery of the Omicron variant was deemed “worrying” on Friday by the WHO. According to the organization’s expert group, preliminary data suggests that it presents “an increased risk of reinfection” compared to other variants including Delta, which is dominant and already highly contagious.

The organization, however, called on Sunday evening for “the borders to remain open”, saying it was standing alongside African countries and calling on countries to “adopt a scientific approach”, based on “the assessment of risks ”. South Africa called for the “immediate and urgent” lifting of travel restrictions on South Africans, while Malawi spoke of “afrophobia”.

Omicron is already present in Africa, Asia, the Pacific and Europe . Cases have been diagnosed in Australia, Hong Kong, the Netherlands (61 cases), Denmark, Belgium, Great Britain, Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic. Each time, they were travelers from southern Africa. France also expects to identify cases of contagion, “most likely a matter of hours,” Health Minister Olivier Véran said on Sunday.

We do not yet know much about its dangerousness and its resistance (or not) to existing vaccines. Its discovery a few days ago is too recent. It will take “several weeks” of studies, we told the WHO.

Threat “high” in Europe

“It’s a race against time,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed in Riga on Sunday. “Scientists and manufacturers need two to three weeks to fully understand the characteristics of the mutations in this Omicron variant. We have to save time, ”she continued, calling on people to be vaccinated, to wear masks and to respect the necessary distance.

She said a contract signed this summer by the European Commission with the BioNTech-Pfizer joint venture for 1.8 billion doses of vaccine included a clause providing for the case of a variant escaping the existing vaccine. By this clause, the laboratory then undertakes to be able to adapt its vaccine within 100 days, she said.

The new variant also raises fears for the global economic recovery, after a black day Friday for oil prices and stock indexes.

Almost 54% of the world’s population has received at least one dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, but only 5.6% in low-income countries, according to the Our World in Data site. In South Africa, the most affected country on the continent, less than 25% of the inhabitants are fully vaccinated. On Sunday, Angola, itself placed on the red list by the United Kingdom, became the first southern African country to suspend its flights in the area.

 

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