Omicron COVID-19 variant detected in more countries as scientists race to find answers


LONDON/AMSTERDAM: The Omicron coronavirus variant spread around the world on Sunday (Nov 28), with new cases found in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia even as more countries imposed travel restriction to try to seal themselves off.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said it is not yet clear whether Omicron, first detected in Southern Africa, is more transmissible than other variants, or if it causes more severe disease.

“Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection,” WHO said.

WHO said understanding the level of severity of Omicron “will take days to several weeks”.

The detection of Omicron triggered global alarm as governments around the world scrambled to impose new travel restriction and markets sold-off, fearing the variant could resist vaccinations and upend a nascent economic reopening after a two-year global pandemic.

In its statement, the WHO said it was working with technical experts to understand the potential impact of the variant on existing countermeasures against COVID-19, including vaccines.

Britain said it will convene an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday to discuss the developments.

Dutch health authorities said 13 cases of the variant were found among people on two flights that arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday.

Authorities had tested all of the more than 600 passengers on those two flights and had found 61 coronavirus cases, going on to test those for the new variant.

“This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge told reporters in Rotterdam.

Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” last week by the WHO that is potentially more contagious than previous variants, has now been detected in Australia, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands and South Africa.



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WHO criticizes travel bans on southern African countries


Updated 8 minutes ago

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — The World Health Organization on Sunday urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concerns over the new omicron variant.

WHO’s regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti, called on countries to follow science and international health regulations in order to avoid using travel restrictions.

“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” Moeti said in a statement. “If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations.”

Moeti praised South Africa for following international health regulations and informing WHO as soon as its national laboratory identified the omicron variant.

“The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended,” said Moeti. “WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19.”

Cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in countries on opposite sides of the world Sunday and many governments rushed to close their borders even as scientists cautioned that it’s not clear if the new variant is more alarming than other versions of the virus.

While investigations continue into the omicron variant, WHO recommends that all countries “take a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures which can limit its possible spread.”

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, emphasized that there is no data yet that suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous COVID-19 variants.

“I do think it’s more contagious, when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa,” Collins said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday — among the most drastic of a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed as nations scrambled to slow the variant’s spread. Scientists in several places — from Hong Kong to Europe — have confirmed its presence. The Netherlands reported 13 omicron cases on Sunday, and Australia found two.

The U.S. plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries starting Monday.

“With the omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said Moeti. “COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions.”

WHO said it scaling up its support for genomic sequencing in Africa so sequencing laboratories have access to adequate human resources and testing reagents to work at full capacity. WHO also said is ready to offer additional help, reinforcing COVID-19 responses including surveillance, treatment, infection prevention and community engagement in southern African countries, it said.

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Follow all AP stories on the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.





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State Department issues ‘do not travel’ warnings to eight countries amid omicron variant concerns


The U.S. State Department has issued level four “do not travel” advisories to South Africa and seven nearby countries amid the new omicron variant spreading throughout the region.

The new warning comes after the World Health Organization designated the COVID-19 omicron variant a “Variant of Concern.” Originally, the omicron variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on Nov. 24.

According to the U.S. State Department, a level 4 travel advisory is the highest advisory level issued and notes that there is a “greater likelihood of life-threatening risks” under this level.

South Africa has experienced a steep increase in COVID-19 infections recently, and the health agency says this coincides with the omicron variant. 

People line up to get on the Air France flight to Paris at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021. A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant that has been detected in South Africa. Scientists say it is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country's most populous province. 

People line up to get on the Air France flight to Paris at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021. A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant that has been detected in South Africa. Scientists say it is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. 
((AP Photo/Jerome Delay))

OMICRON COVID-19 VARIANT: US TO LIMIT TRAVEL FROM 8 SOUTHERN AFRICA COUNTRIES

South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, Eswatini, Botswana were all put under a level 4 “do not travel” advisory by the U.S. State Department on Saturday. 

President Biden announced in a statement on Friday that he is restricting travel from South Africa and seven other countries due to the omicron variant.

U.S. President Joe Biden during a speech in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 23, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

U.S. President Joe Biden during a speech in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building South Court Auditorium at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 23, 2021. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

FAUCI WOULD ‘NOT BE SURPRISED’ IF OMICRON IS ALREADY IN US, PREDICTS IT WILL GO ‘ALL OVER’

“This morning I was briefed by my chief medical advisor, Dr. Tony Fauci, and the members of our COVID response team, about the Omicron variant, which is spreading through Southern Africa,” Biden said in a statement. As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries. These new restrictions will take effect on November 29.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci said in a Saturday morning interview on NBC’s “Weekend TODAY” that he would not be surprised if there are cases of the omicron variant already in the United States.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, takes his seat for a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, takes his seat for a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
((AP Photo/Alex Brandon))

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“You know, I would not be surprised if it is. We have not detected it yet. But, when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve noted in Israel and Belgium and in other places – when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go, essentially, all over,” Fauci said. 

Fox News Julia Musto and Peter Aitken contributed to this report



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Thailand Bans Entry of People Travelling From Eight African Countries | World News


BANGKOK (Reuters) – Thailand on Saturday said it would ban entry of people travelling from eight African countries it designated as high-risk for the new B 1.1.529 COVID-19 variant, a senior health official said.

Starting in December, travel from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, will be prohibited, the official told a news conference.

(Reporting by Chayut Setboonsarng; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Copyright 2021 Thomson Reuters.

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Threat of new virus variant brings back travel restrictions from 8 African countries


The United States just recently started allowing international visitors into the countries, but a new COVID-19 variant already has travel restrictions back in place.

Omnicron, believed to have originated in South Africa, has prompted President Joe Biden to place travel restrictions for eight countries in southern Africa.

Dr. John Zaso, a pediatrician at NYU Langone Health, says it is a highly evolved mutation that could be much more contagious.

It’s not clear how the current vaccines work against the new strain, but Zaso says their effectiveness could go down.

“If you think of the spike protest as a key–what happens is you have many teeth on a key,” Zaso says. “Sometimes one tooth can be a little off or flat and it can still work. When you a 30-mutation spike protein, it’s a whole new key.”

Robert and Melissa Silverstein were planning a trip to Aruba, but changed their minds because of the new variant.

“It’s scary,” Robert Silverstein says. “But it’s just something we need to find out more about.”

News of the new variant also sent stocks tumbling after the holiday as scientists look to learn more about it.

Zaso says it’s not yet known if there is any increase in how sick the Omnicron makes someone, but he says it’s “probably” very contagious compared to other strains.

Travel restrictions begin on Monday. They do not apply to United States citizens or permanent residents, but traveling to that part of the world is not advised.



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Biden restricts travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday


Acting on advice from the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Biden administration will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Biden on Friday night signed the official proclamation restricting the travel of those “physically present” in the countries during the “14-day period preceding their entry, or attempted entry into the United States.”

The proclamation includes a list of those exempted from the new restrictions, including US citizens, lawful permanent residents and noncitizens who are the spouses of citizens or permanent residents.

It says it will remain in effect until terminated by the President and will not apply to any flights scheduled to arrive in the US that depart prior to 12:01 a.m. EST on Monday.

The decision to restrict travel comes as the federal government is still attempting to learn more about the new variant, named Omicron. They need to see more sequencing, but after discussing what they’ve seen so far, officials decided to halt travel from these other countries out of concern about what they don’t yet know.

Biden was briefed Friday on the new coronavirus variant circulating in southern Africa, he said in the announcement.

He told reporters later Friday of the decision: “I’ve decided we’re going to be cautious.”

“We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is a big concern and seems to spread rapidly, and I spent about a half hour this morning with my Covid team led by Dr. Fauci, so that was the decision we made,” the President said.

Officials said the policy was implemented out of an abundance of caution given the World Health Organization has now identified this as a variant of concern.

“Our scientists and public health officials are working quickly to learn more about this variant,” one official said.

White House in contact with airlines

A senior Biden administration official said earlier Friday that several steps had to be taken before the restrictions begin on Monday, including the formal US proclamation, Transportation Security Administration directives and coordination with airlines.

“This is a quick timeline but there are things that need to be done beforehand,” the official said.

An airline source told CNN that airline executives and the White House were in touch Friday, prior to the announcement of new travel restrictions.

Another source familiar with the situation said there was a call Friday afternoon with the federal government and the airline industry. The federal government is working on drafting an official directive that will include guidelines for airlines that go into effect just after midnight Monday morning.

The trade group for major US airlines said it has “many unanswered questions” about the forthcoming restrictions. Airlines for America spokesman Carter Yang told CNN the group is communicating with the administration and believes that travel decisions must “be rooted in science.”

“We remain in communication with the US government as specifics remain unknown at this time and there are many unanswered questions,” Yang said. “Amid this rapidly evolving situation, it is critical that US government decisions regarding international travel restrictions and requirements be rooted in science.”

South Africa’s health minister announced Thursday the discovery of the variant, which appears to be spreading rapidly in parts of the country.

Buying time

The travel restrictions will buy the US federal government more time to investigate the new variant, officials say — but not much.

Inside the government, it is seen as inevitable that the new variant will appear in the US at some point, but the new restrictions should give federal health agencies and their global counterparts more time to learn about the variant, including the severity of the disease it causes. Officials do not believe, based on current thinking, that the variant is in the US yet.

Officials acted quickly to implement new restrictions. While the emergency of the variant had been flagged in the last several weeks, it was only in recent days that they learned how serious it was.

US officials are expected to speak to scientists in South Africa again, potentially on Sunday.

Currently, “there’s no indication” that the new variant is in the United States right now — and US scientists are working closely with colleagues in South Africa to learn more about the emerging variant, Fauci, Biden’s chief medical adviser and the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN’s Brianna Keilar before the travel restrictions were announced Friday.

“Right now, we’re getting the material together with our South African colleagues to get a situation where you could actually directly test it. So, right now you’re talking about sort of like a red flag that this might be an issue — but we don’t know,” he said.

“You want to find out if in fact it does evade the vaccines that we’re doing,” Fauci said when asked about potential travel restrictions. “You’re prepared to do everything you need to do to protect the American public, but you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that.”

Several other countries — including the United Kingdom — have banned flights from South Africa and surrounding African countries in response to the emergence of the variant.

The travel restrictions do not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents. As with all international travelers, they must still test negative prior to travel.

This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.

CNN’s Allie Malloy, Jeff Zeleny, Gregory Wallace and Pete Muntean contributed to this report.



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US travel restrictions coming for 8 African countries due to omicron


The U.S. is going to restrict travel from South Africa and several other countries due to a troubling new COVID-19 variant. 

The White House announced the new rules, which come just weeks after the country reopened to international tourists with new entry rules, on Friday.

The new rules, which take effect Monday, apply to travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents are excluded.

The policy was implemented out of an “abundance of caution” in light of the new variant and in consultation with Anthony Fauci, the president’s Chief Medical Officer, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

►What is omicron: What to know about the new COVID-19 variant in South Africa

►COVID updates: New COVID variant dubbed ‘omicron’ by WHO, classified as ‘variant of concern’

The World Health Organization on Friday declared the variant, omicron, a variant of concern. The first case was reported to WHO from South Africa on Wednesday.

Several European countries and the United Kingdom have already taken measures to restrict travel to and from Africa since the new variant came to light.

What US airlines serve Africa?

United and Delta are the only U.S. airlines offering service between the U.S. and Africa.

United Airlines began offering flights between the United States and Africa, flights that only began earlier this year.

The Chicago-based airline offers nonstop flights between Newark and Johannesburg and Washington, D.C., to Accra three times a week. It is also due to resume seasonal service to Cape Town in December.

“We’re monitoring the situation but don’t have any changes to announce at this time,” United spokeswoman Nicole Carriere said via email.

Delta offers service between Atlanta and Johannesburg and said it, too, is monitoring the situation.



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Countries restrict travel from southern Africa over COVID variant | Coronavirus pandemic News


A growing list of countries, including the UK and Singapore, impose restrictions on travellers from southern Africa.

A growing list of countries, including the UK, Israel and Singapore, have imposed travel restrictions after the discovery of a new coronavirus variant in South Africa.

Scientists have expressed concerns that the new strain could be more resistant to vaccines and could spread more easily.

European and Asian countries tightened travel requirements on Friday after a new coronavirus variant, identified as B.1.1.529, was detected in South Africa.

The Israeli health ministry said on Friday it had detected the country’s first case of the new coronavirus variant in a traveller who returned from Malawi. The traveller and two other suspected cases have been placed in isolation. It said all three are vaccinated but that it is currently looking into their exact vaccination status.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has cautioned against imposing new travel restrictions.

“WHO recommends that countries continued to apply a risk-based and a scientific approach when implementing travel measures … implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva on Friday.

The WHO said that it will take a few weeks to determine exactly how transmissible the new variant is.

“Researchers are working to understand more about the mutations and what they potentially mean for how transmissible or virulent this variant is,” the WHO spokesman said, as WHO experts began a virtual meeting to determine whether B.1.1.529 should be classified as a variant of interest or of concern.

BioNTech assessing vaccine against new strain

BioNTech said on Friday it was studying how well the coronavirus vaccine it developed with Pfizer protects against the new variant.

“We expect more data from the laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest. These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally,” a BioNTech spokesperson said.

A total of about 50 confirmed cases have also been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana. The confirmed cases in Botswana and Hong Kong were detected among travellers from South Africa.

Britain announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon (12:00 GMT) on Friday and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test and to quarantine.

Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from Johannesburg, said “southern African countries depend on tourism and trade” and the new restrictions were crushing hopes ahead of the holiday season.

South Africa recently obtained its removal from a UK red list. “There is certainly concern on the part of the South African government, which said this ban has been rushed,” Miller said.

South Africa will speak to British authorities to try to get them to reconsider their ban, the Foreign Ministry in Pretoria said. “Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement.

The 27-nation EU bloc also said it would consider new restrictions as it battles a fourth spike of the coronavirus pandemic.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that she “proposes, in close coordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region.”

Italy’s health ministry announced measures to ban entry into Italy of anyone who has been in seven southern African nations – South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini – in the past 14 days.

The Netherlands is planning similar measures.

German Health Minister Jens Spahn said airlines coming back from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home, and travellers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days whether they are vaccinated or not.

Germany has seen new record daily case numbers in recent days and passed the mark of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.





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U.S. adds Germany and Denmark to “do not travel” list as COVID cases rise, joining several other European countries


The U.S. has issued a travel advisory for Germany and Denmark due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the two European countries, Reuters reports. The European region as a whole has seen a recent rise in infections.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now considers both Germany and Denmark “Level Four: Very High,” telling Americans to avoid travel there. The State Department also issued “Do Not Travel” advisories for both countries.

Numerous European countries are on the CDC’s list of “Level Four” countries, including Austria, Britain, Belgium, Greece, Norway, Switzerland, Romania, Ireland and the Czech Republic.

The World Health Organization predicts Europe could reach over 2.2 million COVID-19 deaths by March 2022. The projection comes after the organization said Europe and Asia were once again the epicenter of the pandemic earlier this month.

On Monday, Austria officially started a full nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

It was the first country in the European Union to reinstitute such stringent measures amid the fourth wave of the pandemic. About 50,000 protesters turned out over the weekend to oppose the country’s fourth lockdown. Austria is also instating a nationwide vaccine mandate, meaning by February 1, all Austrians over the age of 18 will have to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, by law.

COVID-19 cases in the European region, which stretches into Central Asia and includes 53 countries, rose to nearly 4,200 per day last week, WHO reported. This is double the levels recorded at the end of September, according to the Associated Press.

There have been 1.5 million cumulative deaths in the region since the pandemic began.

On November 4, WHO Europe projected that another half a million lives may be lost to COVID-19 before February 2022. The organization also said that if Europe and Asia achieved 95% universal mask wearing, they could save up to 188,000 of those lives, and stressed that vaccines are the “most powerful asset” to stopping the spread of COVID-19. 

In the U.S., COVID-19 deaths in 2021 have surpassed the 2020 death toll, according to Johns Hopkins University. Cases are rising in more than 30 states ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday — with the latest surge straining hospitals in the Upper Midwest.

Over the weekend, 3 million Americans received a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine after the FDA and CDC expanded access to Moderna’s and Pfizer’s boosters for all adults, the White House reported.



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