International passengers pass through the arrivals area of Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London, England on November 26, 2021.
Leon Neal | Getty Images News | Getty Images
The heavily mutated omicron Covid-19 variant has been discovered in more countries as governments around the world weigh up new travel bans and restrictive measures.
The World Health Organization said Monday the variant poses a “very high” global risk that could have “serious consequences” as some of its mutations could bypass immune protection and indicate greater transmissibility.
The South African doctor Dr. However, Angelique Coetzee, who first sounded the alarm about the new strain, told the BBC on Sunday that the symptoms associated with it have so far been “extremely mild”.
The UK has identified nine cases as of Monday morning, including six in Scotland, while the Netherlands and Portugal have each discovered 13 cases.
In other European countries, small numbers of cases were found in Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, Belgium and Austria.
Australia has reported five cases and will temporarily suspend the next phase of its border reopening plan while more information is gathered on the new variant. Cases have now also been identified in Canada and Hong Kong.
Scientists around the world are trying to evaluate omicron’s ability to bypass existing vaccines and natural immunity.
Early data suggests the variant is spreading faster in South Africa than previous variants and that the strain officially known as B.1.1.529 could trigger a new wave of infections, according to an analysis by the Financial Times.
In a special session of the World Health Assembly on Monday to discuss a new pandemic treaty, WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the discovery of the omicron variant “underscores how dangerous and precarious our situation is”.
He also said South Africa, where the strain was first identified, should be thanked for detecting, sequencing and reporting the results, rather than “punishing” it in the form of travel bans.
Britain put a temporary travel ban on six southern African countries on Friday. The US has now restricted travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. Japan will be the second country after Israel on Tuesday to close its borders to all foreigners.
WHO urged wealthy nations to share the vaccine supply, saying the injustice in vaccines will allow the virus to “spread and develop in ways that we cannot predict or prevent”.
Tedros stressed that more than 80% of the world’s vaccines got into the advanced G-20 economies, while low-income countries, many of them in Africa, received just 0.6% of all vaccines.
Hope for vaccination boosters
Even before the discovery of the new variant, Europe was stuck in an increase in cases due to the globally dominant and highly virulent “Delta” variant, which had led to record highs in some countries and once again led to social restrictions.
Dr. Brookings Institution’s Kavita Patel told CNBC Monday that it would take about a week or two before scientists can replicate the virus and show whether it can be neutralized by existing antibodies.
Patel suggested that travel restrictions were ineffective and that countries should instead focus on testing and isolating cases as the existing PCR testing equipment successfully recognizes the new strain. She also suggested that scientists are optimistic about the ability of existing vaccines to ward off omicrons.
“The current vaccines don’t just produce these variant-specific antibodies. You are trying to generate a broad antibody response and this is where the kind of brilliance of the human body takes place: the B cells, the cells that produce these antibodies, you actually have the ability to adapt antibody responses to incoming threats to your body “, explained Patel.
She added that there is convincing data that booster vaccines can boost existing immunity, highlighting the need for people to get vaccinated and take booster vaccinations when they are available.
– CNBC’s Holly Ellyatt contributed to this report.