Omicron variant triggers scramble to impose travel curbs: Live

A new variant of the coronavirus has prompted several countries to impose restrictions such as travel bans, while others have renewed lockdowns over the Omicron strain.

The new restrictions come after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the new COVID-19 variant to be “of concern”.

The Omicron variant, which scientists say has a high number of mutations, was first detected in South Africa last week and has spread rapidly through the province of Gauteng, home to the economic hub Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.

It has so far been detected in at least four other countries.

Also known as B.1.1.529, the mutations could help the virus evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, according to scientists.

It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.

In response to the variant’s discovery, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union in restricting travel for visitors from several southern African countries.

Here are the latest updates:

Variants may be a result of vaccine inequity: Analyst

Oksana Pyzik, global health adviser and a lecturer at teaching fellow at University College London’s School of Pharmacy, told Al Jazeera that vaccine inequality will likely lead to more coronavirus variants as the pandemic is prolonged, and that a more coordinated international approach towards vaccine distribution is needed.

“The World Health Organization has been warning repeatedly for months on end … that if vaccine inequity continues, if we continue to have high income countries hoarding vaccines such that entire continents are left with very limited access to vaccines, this will inevitably lead to a [more powerful] virus, a potentially vaccine-resistant virus,” she said.

Pyzik said that less than 3.5 percent of people across the continent of Africa have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“So only focusing on high income regions has been a short term view of the issue, and we have also taken for granted that Delta is the worst variant that we could come across and now we have evidence that points otherwise – of course it is early days, but what scientists have come across is deeply worrying.”

Oil prices crash as fears loom over global recovery

Cornerlia Meyer, an economist and oil analyst, said oil prices fell more than 10 percent.

“That was probably an overreaction, it’s always overshoot and undershoot,” Meyer told Al Jazeera.

“But it shows real awareness amongst traders … in terms of what does this mean … what will that mean for air travel,” she said.

“Should this variant spread, and if transatlantic routes close down again, that would be bad.”

To read more about the crash, click here.

‘Monitoring systems’ in place to detect new variants: WHO COVID lead

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said despite people’s concern over the Omicron variant, the good thing is that “we have monitoring systems around the world to detect these variants very quickly”.

“This variant was detected a few weeks ago, and already, scientists are sharing research with us … so that we can take action,” she told Al Jazeera.

UK Labour Party calls for quicker COVID booster jabs

Britain should cut the gap between the second dose of a COVID-19 vaccination and the booster jab from six to five months, Britain’s main opposition Labour Party said.

“This new variant is a wake-up call,” said Labour’s junior health spokesman Alex Norris. “The pandemic is not over. We need to urgently bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay.”

Japan tightening border controls on three more African countries

Japan will tighten border controls for the southern African nations of Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia, requiring a 10-day quarantine for any entrants, the Foreign Ministry.

The new rules will take effect from midnight (15:00 GMT on Saturday) and come a day after Japan tightened border controls for those arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho.

Travellers from South Africa in Netherlands positive for COVID-19

Dutch health authorities said that 61 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for COVID-19, and they were conducting further testing early Saturday to see if any of the infections are with the Omicron variant.

“Travelers with a positive test result will be placed in isolation at a hotel at or near Schiphol,” health authorities said in a statement.

“Of the positive test results, we are researching as quickly as possible whether they are the new variant of concern, now named ‘Omicron’.”

The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday.

Sri Lanka bans travellers from six African nations

Sri Lanka said it was barring travellers from six Southern African countries on Saturday over concerns about the new Omicron variant of COVID-19.

From Monday, travellers will not be allowed into the country from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho and Eswatini, Colombo said in a statement.

Travellers who arrived from these six countries over the past two days will have to undergo mandatory 14 days quarantine.

Thailand bans entry from eight African countries

Thailand said it would ban the entry of people travelling from eight African countries it designated as high-risk for the new Omicron variant of COVID-19.

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

Thailand will not allow travellers from these countries to register to travel to Thailand starting on Saturday, he said.

“We have notified airlines and these countries,” Opas said adding that travellers from other African countries will not be allowed to use the country’s quarantine-free travel scheme for vaccinated travellers.

South African scientists brace for wave propelled by Omicron

South Africa’s numbers are still relatively low, with 2,828 new confirmed cases recorded on Friday, but Omicron’s speed in infecting young South Africans has alarmed health professionals.

“We’re seeing a marked change in the demographic profile of patients with COVID-19,” Dr Rudo Mathivha, the head of the intensive care unit at Soweto’s Baragwanath Hospital, told an online press briefing.

“Young people, in their 20s to just over their late 30s, are coming in with moderate to severe disease, some needing intensive care. About 65 percent are not vaccinated and most of the rest are only half-vaccinated,” said Mathivha.

She said urgent preparations are needed to enable public hospitals to cope with a potentially large influx of patients needing intensive care.

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