Japan and France confirmed their first cases of the new variant of the coronavirus on Tuesday as countries around the world scrambled to close their doors or find ways to limit its spread while scientists study how damaging it might be.
The World Health Organization has warned that the global risk from the omicron variant is “very high” based on early evidence, saying it could lead to surges with “severe consequences.”
French authorities on Tuesday confirmed the first case of the omicron variant in the French island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Patrick Mavingui, a microbiologist at the island’s research clinic for infectious diseases, said the person who has tested positive for the new variant is a 53-year-old man who had traveled to Mozambique and stopped in South Africa before returning to Reunion.
The man was placed in quarantine. He has “muscle pain and fatigue,” Mavingui said, according to public television Reunion 1ere.
Japan on Tuesday confirmed its first case in a visitor who recently arrived from Namibia, a day after banning all foreign visitors as an emergency precaution against the variant. A government spokesperson said the patient, a man in his 30s, tested positive upon arrival at Narita airport on Sunday and was isolated and is being treated at a hospital.
Cambodia barred entry to travelers from 10 African countries, citing the threat from the omicron variant. The move came just two weeks after Cambodia reopened its borders to fully vaccinated travelers on Nov. 15.
The new version was first identified days ago by researchers in South Africa.
WHO said there are “considerable uncertainties” about the omicron variant. But it said preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.
The WHO stressed that while scientists are hunting evidence to better understand this variant, countries should accelerate vaccinations as quickly as possible.
Despite the global worry, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms so far. But they warn that it is early. Also, most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.
U.S. President Joe Biden says a highly transmissible COVID-19 variant, dubbed omicron, is a cause for “concern, not panic” and defended his much-criticized decision to restrict travel from the southern African region, where it was first reported. VOA’s Anita Powell reports from the White House.
Produced by: Barry Unger
Zimbabwe’s government says the country is very prepared to handle the new COVID-19 variant – omicron – first reported in neighboring South Africa. The World Health Organization says a fourth wave of the pandemic is most likely to hit Africa.
Zimbabwe’s Vice President Constantino Chiwenga – who doubles as the country’s health minister – has asked the nation not to be concerned about omicron.
“The country should not panic because we are very prepared. The ramping up of our vaccination program in the past month has seen marked increase in the vaccination uptake. That is the prevention which we are going to have for our people if any other variant comes. At least when your body is protected it is much better than when you are found naked,” said the vice president.
Zimbabwe has fully inoculated about 2.8 million people since February, when it began its vaccination program to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. The government has a target of vaccinating at least 10 million Zimbabweans — or 60% of the population — by the end of the year, a figure which might be difficult to reach given the scarcity of resources and short time left.
Itai Rusike, head of the nonprofit Community Working Group on Health, said Zimbabweans should panic about the new variant – initially named B.1.1.529 – since the country shares porous borders with South Africa and Botswana.
“And this new variant is coming at a time when the festive season is upon us. A whole lot of Zimbabweans, they use undesignated entry points. That poses a serious health challenge as they would not be properly screened and monitored as they come back to the country. What we want to encourage the government of Zimbabwe, is for them to strengthen their surveillance and monitoring system especially the land borders and make sure that the screening and monitoring at the entry points is also strengthened,” said Rusike.
Meanwhile, Humphrey Karamagi, a medical officer at the World Health Organization Regional Office for Africa, said on the WHO Twitter account that a fourth wave of COVID-19 is likely to hit the continent.
“A fourth wave in Africa is almost a certainty, as long as we have these factors in play, which is new variants coming up and the fact that people can be reinfected. And also, if we are getting new population who may not have been exposed. We would then have subsequent waves. Vaccination helps a lot in terms of reducing the severity of the disease [and] also reducing the risk of infection. The vaccine is not a magic bullet. So the vaccine is to work together with the public health measures to reduce the potential and risks of subsequent waves,” said Karamagi.
The WHO says COVID-19 has infected about 6.1 million people in Africa and claimed 152,113 lives. The world health body also says more than 227 million vaccine doses have been administered in Africa.
The World Health Organization says renewed efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is needed as scientists scramble to determine the risks posed by the new omicron variant. Low vaccine rates combined with public fatigue over safety measures are putting more people in Africa at risk.
Experts say it’s no surprise a new variant of the coronavirus has been discovered.
Fewer than 8 percent of Africans are vaccinated against COVID-19, creating an environment for the illness to spread and mutate.
Dr. Mary Stephen is a technical officer for the World Health Organization’s Africa office.
She said in the absence of vaccines, the public needs encouragement to uphold other measures to reduce the spread and save lives.
“We cannot be tired; we have to continue to make sure we are complying with wearing of our face masks, keeping our distance away, avoiding unnecessary mass gatherings, ensuring good hand hygiene, so that it’s another layer of protection in addition to the vaccination,” she said.
South African scientists detected the omicron variant last week.
Research is under way to determine how transmittable it is and its reaction to vaccines.
Amid uncertainty, Britain, the United States and European Union reacted by imposing travel bans to southern Africa.
Stephen, however, said the variant has already crossed continents and that halting flights to African countries that have long enforced testing for travelers is the wrong response.
“The world should react to them with solidarity. The solution is not about banning travel but our ability to identify these cases, identify the potential risks, mitigate the risks, while we are still facilitating international travel because we have seen the devastating effects that COVID had on the economy,” she said.
Jeremiah Tshukudu is all too familiar with the economic toll of the pandemic.
The 45-year-old Uber driver said two of his cars were repossessed last year because he could no longer afford the payments during lockdown.
Tshukudu said he fears he’s about to take another financial hit with the new variant.
“I see us like losing close to let’s say 50% of what we’ve been earning recently. Relying on Uber, business was down, that means I wouldn’t be able to provide for the family,” he said.
Despite the pandemic’s impact on him, Tshukudu said he’s still hesitant about getting vaccinated.
With the threat of a new variant, experts are hoping people like him will reconsider.
Dr. Michelle Groome is with South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
“Hopefully, you know, with some concern over coming fourth wave, hopefully, you know, those that were on the fence may actually go and vaccinate,” she said.
More than 3,200 people in South Africa tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday, a marked increase from the day before.
The government is campaigning for more people to get vaccinated and even offering grocery vouchers to those who get their shot.
Government data show that at least 41 percent of South African adults have now been vaccinated.