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Countries brace for 'Omicron', the new coronavirus variant

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced that the new mutation of COVID-19 is "of concern". In addition, many experts point to the need for universal vaccination to prevent new strains
REUTERS/DADO RUVIC

REUTERS/DADO RUVIC  -   Omicron SARS-CoV-2

Due to the emergence of a new variant of the coronavirus, several countries have decided to impose restrictions or even close their borders in order to prevent a new wave of COVID-19. Omicron, the new mutation of the virus, was first detected by South African scientists in Botswana earlier this month, although the WHO announced its emergence last Friday. Although many aspects of the variant are still unknown, the World Health Organisation has indicated that Omicron "has a large number of mutations that may impact on the behaviour of the virus". The WHO has also said that this new strain is "of concern" as it presents "a very high risk" to the world.  

In response to the WHO's warnings, several countries have begun to tighten restrictions related to the coronavirus, in addition to cancelling flights to certain southern African countries. The UK, France and Israel were the first to suspend direct flights to South Africa and Botswana; the European Union later joined in, cancelling flights to other African countries such as Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. However, the WHO urged the international community not to discriminate against these nations.  

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AFP/AFP - Fact sheet on SARS-CoV-2 variants of concern, including the recently announced Omicron variant

In order to address this situation, the World Health Assembly has organised an extraordinary meeting in Geneva that will last 3 days. In this regard, the UK has also convened a G7 summit to address this challenge. 

Israel first country to completely close its borders 

 "The entry of foreigners into Israel is prohibited, except in cases approved by a special committee," said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office, following the WHO's announcement of the new variant. The Hebrew state has already detected two cases of the new mutation, in addition to investigating several suspected cases. In Israel, almost 50% of the population has already received the booster dose, and last week health authorities began vaccinating children between the ages of 5 and 11.  

In addition to the border closures, intelligence services will monitor people returning from abroad and public events will be limited to a maximum of 50 people, according to EFE news agency. Despite the restrictions, Nitzan Horowitz, the Israeli health minister, has assured that the country has Omicron "under control" and called on the population to remain calm.   

AFP/ JACK GUEZ
AFP/ JACK GUEZ - Israel closed its borders to all foreigners on 28 November 2021 in an attempt to curb the spread of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Morocco suspends international flights for two weeks  

Rabat has decided to cancel all international flights for a period of two weeks from Monday 29 November "in order to preserve Morocco's achievements in the fight against the pandemic and to protect the health of its citizens", the Moroccan government said in a statement. In addition, Morocco has cancelled the two maritime connections with France.  

The Alawi government "will spend the next few days assessing the situation in order to adjust, if necessary, the appropriate measures", according to the official communiqué. Morocco is announcing these restrictions with the aim of maintaining the favourable figures for the coronavirus, as the Kingdom has been at the lowest levels of contagion since the beginning of the pandemic for weeks, according to Europa Press. 

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AFP/FADEL SENNA - Moroccans wearing masks in Rabat
Arabian Peninsula countries take action against Omicron 

Saudi Arabia has banned the entry of citizens from seven African countries: Malawi, Zambia, Madagascar, Angola, Seychelles, Mauritius and Comoros. It has also suspended flights to Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, South Africa and Esuatini. People arriving in the Kingdom from these states will be able to enter if they have previously spent 14 days in a different country.  

The United Arab Emirates has followed in Riyadh's footsteps. Abu Dhabi has suspended flights to these countries, except for official delegations, emergency treatment cases and study missions, as reported by Asharq News.  

Bahrain and Qatar have taken similar measures regarding travel to southern African countries. Other countries in the region have also chosen to protect themselves against the new variant. Jordan only allows its nationals from the 'red list' nations to enter through Queen Alia International Airport in Amman. Jordanian nationals will be required to present a negative PCR test performed within the last 72 hours in addition to a new test upon arrival in the country.  

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AFP/ SHEIKH HAMDAN BIN MOHAMMED AL MAKTOUM MEDIA OFFICE - Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Hamdan bin Mohamed al-Maktoum inspecting a field hospital at the World Trade Center in Dubai.
Angola becomes first African country to suspend flights with its neighbours 

The Angolan government has banned the entry of passengers from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Esuatini and Malawi. "The decision does not affect Angolan citizens, who can return to the country. However, they will be asked to carry out a 14-day quarantine at home," stressed Minister of State Adao Almeida. Angola is the first African country to cancel flights with its regional neighbours. The African nation has so far recorded 65,130 infections and 1,733 deaths from the coronavirus.  

Japan closes its borders to all foreign visitors 

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has announced a ban on "new entries from all countries in the world as a preventive and urgent measure". The restrictions come into effect on 30 November and are "an abnormal and temporary measure until the situation is clarified by the new strain," Kishida said.  

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AP/THEMBA HADEBE - People walk past a COVID-19 advertisement in the Soweto township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Other Asian countries are shielding themselves from the Omicron mutation. South Korea has suspended issuing visas to citizens of the seven African countries, while Koreans from these nations will be quarantined for 10 days. On the other hand, Indonesia, in addition to banning entry to travellers from these 7 states, has also added restrictions on citizens from Nigeria

New York declares state of emergency 

On 8 November, the United States opened its borders to travellers from around the world after twenty months of severe restrictions due to the coronavirus. However, in less than a month, due to this new variant, several parts of the country have once again announced measures. New York, for example, has declared a state of emergency for Omicron. "While the new variant has not yet been detected in New York State, it is coming," warned Kathy Hochul, governor of New York. Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, reiterated Hochul's statements, saying he would not be "surprised" if the variant is already on US soil.    

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AP/JOHN MINCHILLO - A patient undergoes a COVID-19 test by a medical worker outside the Brooklyn Hospital Center on 29 March 2020.
"Instead of third doses, let's think about making the first and second doses available to countries where they are unprotected" 

Despite travel restrictions and cancellations, Omicron has already spread to several places around the world. The Netherlands, Belgium, UK, Germany, Australia, Italy and Germany have already reported cases of the new strain. Moreover, other states are investigating possible infections of Omicron, such as Portugal, which has already decreed a lockdown after the Christmas holidays. "At the moment, there are cases under investigation. We can't say they are suspected cases. They are cases that are being investigated," said Graça Freitas, the Portuguese health director general. 

It is worth noting the warnings of many experts that until the entire population is vaccinated, these mutations will continue to emerge. They point to the West and the need to send vaccines to developing countries. "Instead of third doses, let's think about providing the first and second doses to countries where they are unprotected. Otherwise, variants will continue to emerge that adapt and escape the immune defences we have already developed. The longer we delay the global population process, the worse it will be for everyone," José Antonio López Guerrero, a virologist at the Autonomous University of Madrid, told ABC. "Our mistake has been to shield the first world with vaccines"

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AP/NARDUS ENGELBRECHT - A person wears a face mask to protect against coranavirus at a shopping centre in Khayelitsha in Cape Town, South Africa.

The NGO Salud por Derecho, which defends a universal health model, has also echoed this inequality. "More than a year later, this debate is still blocked by a group of rich countries where vaccination is very advanced, even with third doses, while in the least favoured countries only 5.5% of the population has been administered a dose," Irene Bernal, a member of the NGO, told El Independiente.  

The affected countries themselves have also denounced this situation during the UN General Assembly session last September. "It is an indictment of humanity that less than one percent of the world's vaccine doses are destined for low-income countries," lamented South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Joao Lourenço of Angola noted that the vast majority of people in Africa have not received their first dose. Even Namibia's Hage Geingob spoke of an "Apartheid Vaccine".  

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REUTERS/SIPHIWE SIBEKO - Marchers demand the roll-out of coronavirus disease vaccines (COVID-19) in Pretoria, South Africa.

Since the coronavirus first appeared in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, scientists have detected several mutations in some parts of the world. Alpha, Beta, Gamma or Delta variants have been the most publicised, although others such as Lambda or Mu have also been discovered. These mutations are a major setback for scientists, as it must be investigated whether the new strains respond to the vaccines developed so far.