The global health risk posed by the omicron variant of the coronavirus is “very high” and could have “severe consequences,” the World Health Organization warned on Monday.
In a memorandum to its member countries, the WHO states that “considerable uncertainties” persist around the variant detected in southern Africa, but adds that the probability of a contagion to other parts of the planet is high.
Meanwhile, countries around the world were trying to hold off the new omicron variant with travel bans and other restrictions, even as it remains unclear what it means for the pandemic.
Japan announced that it will suspend the entry of all foreigners, despite the fact that new cases of the variant identified days ago by researchers in South Africa appeared to be as distant as Hong Kong, Australia and Portugal. Portuguese authorities are investigating whether some of the infections detected in the country could be among the first reported cases of local transmission of the variant outside of southern Africa.
With the flow of new cases, it seemed almost impossible to keep things under control in a globalized world of travel and open borders.
Yet many tried to do just that, even against the insistence of the World Health Organization, which noted that border closures often have a limited effect, but can also wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods. Some argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant.
Little is known about it, even if it is more contagious, causes more severe disease, or is better able to evade the protection of vaccines.
Although the initial global response to COVID-19 was criticized for being slow and chaotic, the reaction to the new variant was swift.
“On this occasion, the world showed its learning,” said European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who specifically praised South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.
“South Africa’s analytical work and transparency, and having shared its results, was indispensable to enable a rapid global response. It certainly saved many lives,” he added.
The WHO also praised South Africa and Botswana for quickly alerting the world to the presence of a new variant, and many have warned that they should not be penalized for their speed, especially that it is likely that it will never be known when or where the new version emerged. .
But that didn’t stop Von der Leyen from pressuring the 27-nation blockade to impose immediate bans on flights from seven southern African countries, measures similar to those implemented by many countries.