New information shows that omicron spread wider earlier than expected – Press Enterprise

By RAF CASERT and ANDREW MELDRUM

BRUSSELS (AP) – New results on the coronavirus’s omicron variant made it clear on Tuesday that the new threat slipped into countries before their defenses were up, as two distant nations announced their first case and a third reported its presence before South African officials sounded the alarm.

The Dutch RIVM Health Institute found omicron in samples from 19 and 23 November. The World Health Organization said South Africa first reported the variant to the UN Health Agency on 24 November. Meanwhile, Japan and France reported their first case of new variant, which in turn has forced the world to pinball between the hope of returning to normal and the fear that the worst is yet to come.

Much is still unknown about the new variant, including how contagious it may be, but a WHO official said Tuesday that there may soon be a steep rise in infections in parts of southern Africa.

It is unclear where or when the variant first appeared, and the Dutch announcement further blurs the timeline. Earlier, the Netherlands had said that they found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday – but the new cases precede it.

It has not stopped cautious nations from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially for visitors coming from southern Africa. These measures have been criticized by South Africa and the WHO has called on them to note their limited impact.

Recent news, however, made it increasingly clear that travel bans would fight to stop the spread of the variant. The Netherlands, Belgium and France have now all reported cases of people who were in their countries before the EU imposed flight restrictions.

Japan announced that it would ban all foreign visitors from Tuesday – but it turned out to be too late. It confirmed its first case that day, a Namibian diplomat who had recently arrived from his country.

German authorities, meanwhile, said they had an omicron infection in a man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who was.

The WHO warned Monday that the global risk from omicron is “very high.” and that early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.

The growing number of cases attributed to omicron in Botswana and South Africa suggests that this may be the first sign of a “steep rise,” said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, regional virologist for the World Health Organization, to the Associated Press on Tuesday. .

“There is a possibility that we are really going to see a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move or as the week unfolds,” Gumede-Moeletsi said.

After a period of low transmission in South Africa, new cases began to rise rapidly in mid-November. Currently, the country confirms nearly 3,000 new infections a day.

The concentration of omicron cases among university students in the capital Pretoria is a particular cause for concern because that group is very sociable – and will soon be on their way home at the end of the year and mingling with friends and family.

Doctors in South Africa report that patients mostly suffer from mild symptoms so far, but many of them are young adults who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.

Yet many officials tried to quell the fear, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get shots fired at all parts of the globe.

The head of the European Medicines Agency, Emer Cooke, insisted that the EU of 27 countries was well prepared for the variant. Although it is not known how effective current vaccines against omicron are, Cooke said the shots could be adapted within three or four months if needed.

The latest variant makes vaccination efforts even more important, said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, noting, as many have done before, that “as long as the virus replicates somewhere, it can mutate.”

In the light of the new variant, some new measures were introduced aimed at mitigating the spread.

England made face-covering mandatory again in public transport and in shops, banks and hairdressers. And a month before Christmas, the head of the British health security agency, Jenny Harries, urged people not to socialize if they did not need it.

And after COVID-19 already led to a year of postponement of the summer games, the Olympic organizers began to worry about the winter games in February in Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the omicron “would certainly bring some prevention and control challenges.”

World markets continued to tip all medical news, either worrying or reassuring.

Global equities fell mostly on Tuesday as investors cautiously weighed how much damage omicron could trigger on the global economy.

Some analysts believe that a severe economic downturn, such as the one that occurred last year, is likely to be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also believe that a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, particularly in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.

In a world already nervous about the more contagious delta variant that filled hospitals again in many places, even in some highly vaccinated nations, recent developments underscored the need for the entire globe to get their hands on vaccines.

“We have vaccination rates in the US, in Europe of 50, 60, 70%, depending on exactly who you count. And in Africa it is more like 14, 15% or less, ”said Blinken.

“We know, we know, we know that none of us will be completely safe until everyone is.”

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Meldrum reported from Johannesburg. AP journalists from around the world contributed.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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