US tightens travel rules as countries race to quell Omicron threat
Air travellers to the United States will face tougher Covid-19 testing rules as several countries moved to seal off borders amid growing uncertainty around the virulence of the Omicron variant and its ability to dodge existing vaccines.
Echoing remarks by vaccine maker BioNTech and scientists, European Medicines Agency Executive Director Emer Cooke said laboratory analyses should indicate over the next two weeks whether the blood of vaccinated people has sufficient antibodies to neutralise the new variant.
In an attempt to stave off hasty global border restrictions, the World Health Organization called on countries to apply “an evidence-informed and risk-based approach” to travel measures. Blanket travel bans will not prevent the spread, and they “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods”, the WHO said. More than 50 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying import of Omicron as of Nov. 28, the WHO added.
Japan to expand travel ban to some foreigners
Japan on Wednesday said it would expand its travel ban on foreigners entering the nation, preventing those with resident status from 10 African nations including South Africa from entering the country “for the time being.” The border closing will be in effect from midnight on Wednesday for at least a month. The new rules will apply to foreign residents from South Africa, Eswatini, Namibia, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Lesotho, Angola, Botswana and Zimbabwe.
Japanese border measures were loosened slightly a few weeks ago, but all of those changes have been rolled back in a move generally applauded by the public and accepted by business leaders, although some sectors of the economy dependent on foreign trainees could be hit if the closing is extended.
How South African scientists spotted the Omicron variant
The important questions about Omicron – how good is the new variant at evading immunity from vaccines or past illness, how severe are the symptoms, compared with previous versions, and how will this differ among age groups – remain to be answered. Three scientists interviewed by Reuters who are working on those questions expect answers in about 3-4 weeks.
In the meantime, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is considering introducing mandatory vaccination in some contexts, with the country still reeling from 3 million Covid-19 infections in total during the pandemic and over 89,000 deaths.
There is much anger in South Africa at the foreign travel bans – some of it directed at the scientists. Gene sequencer Daniel Amoako, one of those who first found Omicron, has received some angry messages saying they should just “stop looking” for new variants.
All about the S-gene
Most PCR tests cannot distinguish Omicron from the Delta variant, the dominant and most infectious version of the virus so far. To distinguish Omicron from Delta, the PCR test must be able to identify a mutation in Omicron known as the S-gene drop-out or S-gene target failure (SGTF). It is not a fail-safe because the Alpha variant, first identified in Britain, also has that mutation.
The World Health Organization has so far only recommended the TaqPath test produced by U.S. firm Thermo Fisher as a proxy. Thermo Fisher has said it is prepared to increase production to meet demand from countries in Africa and elsewhere as they work to track the spread of the new variant.
South Korea reports record of over 5,000 new infections
South Korea reported a new daily record of 5,123 new coronavirus cases, as it battles to contain a sharp rise in patients with severe symptoms and stave off the Omicron variant, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) said on Wednesday. The government on Monday shelved plans to further relax Covid-19 curbs because of the strain on its healthcare system from rising hospitalisations and deaths as well as the possible threat posed by the new variant.
More than 84% of the severely ill Covid-19 patients were aged 60 and above. Experts had pointed to waning antibody levels from the vaccines and urged the elderly to get booster shots. ICU bed capacity in the greater Seoul area stood at 89.2%, Son Young-rae, a senior health official, told a briefing.