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WHO urges 'rational' measures against Omicron variant

The new potentially more contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in more European countries on Saturday, just days after being identified in South Africa, leaving governments around the world scrambling to stop the spread.

Because of fears that the new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines, there are growing concerns around the world that the pandemic and associated lockdown restrictions will persist for far longer than hoped.

Nearly two years since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than 5 million lives around the world, countries are on high alert.

More Omicron variant cases

The UK on Saturday tightened its rules on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two linked cases of Omicron. The two cases were connected to travel to southern Africa, British health minister Sajid Javid said.

The health ministry in the German state of Bavaria also announced two confirmed cases of the variant. The two people entered Germany at Munich airport on November 24, before Germany designated South Africa as a virus-variant area, and were now isolating, said the ministry, indicating without stating explicitly that the people had traveled from South Africa.

In Italy, the National Health Institute said a case of the new variant had been detected in Milan in a person coming from Mozambique.

Czech health authorities also said they were examining a suspected case of the variant in a person who spent time in Namibia.

Dutch authorities said 61 of around 600 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday had tested positive for the coronavirus. Health authorities were carrying out further tests to see if those cases involved the new variant.

In the U.S., Doctor Anthony Fauci, the government's top infectious diseases expert, said he would not be surprised if the Omicron variant was already in the United States, too.

"We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility ... it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over," Fauci said on NBC television.

Financial markets plunged on Friday, especially the stocks of airlines and others in the travel sector. Oil prices tumbled by about $10 a barrel.

It could take weeks for scientists to understand fully the variant's mutations and whether existing vaccines and treatments are effective against it.

Travel curbs

Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand, the United States and other countries  have already imposed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa as they seek to buy time to assess whether the Omicron variant is more transmissible than the current dominant Delta variant. The move goes against the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO), which has warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied. Epidemiologists also say travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating globally.

In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was necessary to take "targeted and precautionary measures" after the two new variant cases were found in England.

"Right now, this is the responsible course of action to slow down the seeding and the spread of this new variant and to maximize our defenses," he told media at a news conference.

The British government added four more countries – Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia – to its red list from Sunday. Six others – Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – were added Friday. That means anyone permitted to arrive from those destinations will have to quarantine.

Israel said it would ban the entry of all foreigners and reintroduce counterterrorism phone-tracking technology to contain the spread of the variant.

Vaccinations

The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on disparities in how far the world's population is vaccinated. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than seven percent of people in low-income countries have received their first COVID-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.

Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Vaccine Alliance that with the WHO co-leads the COVAX initiative to push for equitable distribution of vaccines, said this was essential to ward off the emergence of more coronavirus variants.

"While we still need to know more about Omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world's population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged," he said in a statement to Reuters.

"We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world's population, not just the wealthy parts."

(With input from agencies)

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