TOKYO (AP) – The omicron variant kept the world nervous on Wednesday as Japan tightened travel restrictions further, infections linked to the new version of the coronavirus emerged in more places, and new evidence clearly showed that the mutant strain was circulating weeks earlier than thought.
Much is still unknown about the new variant, including how contagious it is and whether it can escape vaccines, and the EU chief has acknowledged that waiting for scientists to tell the world more sounded like “an eternity”. Meanwhile, many countries in Europe still face an increase in infections and hospitalizations from their old nemesis, the delta variant.
Japan has maintained its aggressive stance, asking international airlines to stop taking new bookings for all flights arriving in the country until the end of December. The world’s third-largest economy decision, coupled with its recent reversion to banning foreign visitors, is among the toughest in the world, and more in line with cloistered neighboring China than with some other democracies in the region.
However, many countries around the world have banned travelers from southern Africa, and the United States is set to toughen testing requirements for international arrivals.
South African researchers alerted the World Health Organization to the omicron last week, but it is not known where or when the variant first appeared, and it is already clear that it was circulating in Europe. before this alert. But Nigeria pushed the schedule even further on Wednesday, when its National Institute of Public Health said it detected the variant in a sample it collected in October – also its first known case of the mutation.
Concern and uncertainty over the new variant and the sometimes haphazard imposition of restrictions were reminiscent of the early days of the pandemic, as was the familiar realization that the virus had once again exceeded efforts to contain it.
As a sign of the difficulty in controlling the virus in an age of air travel and economic globalization, Japan has confirmed its second case of the variant – in a person who arrived from Peru via Qatar. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, said on Wednesday it detected its first case of omicron, a day after Brazil reported variant cases, the first known in Latin America.
âI listen to my scientists, they all say we don’t know enough now. Therefore, it is good that they take their two to three weeks, âsaid European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. âIt’s normally a short time. In times of pandemic, it is an eternity.
As the world eagerly awaited more information, some countries were already struggling to fend off surges prior to omicron’s announcement.
The German Intensive Care Association warned on Wednesday that the number of COVID-19 patients requiring intensive care would reach a new high before Christmas – and that it expected last year’s historic high to be outmoded.
The DIVI association called for national restrictions to immediately slow the spread. German federal and state leaders are expected to vote on new measures on Thursday. Chancellor-designate Olaf Scholz has said he will support a proposal to make vaccination compulsory for everyone next year.
Austria, meanwhile, extended its lockdown until December 11 as planned amid signs that the restrictions are helping bring down very high coronavirus infections.
Germany and Austria are among several countries in Europe experiencing outbreaks – even some with relatively high vaccination rates. Portugal – with an 87% vaccination rate which is among the highest in the world – tightened entry requirements and made indoor masks mandatory on Wednesday to slow an upward trend. Until recently, the country was immune to peaks encountered elsewhere on the continent.
South Korea is also experiencing a delta surge that has pushed hospitalizations and deaths to record levels. The country on Wednesday reported a daily rise in coronavirus infections that topped 5,000 for the first time – as well as its first cases of the new variant.
The emergence of yet another variant left the world between hopes of a return to normal and fears that the worst was yet to come.
In Singapore, which is trying a life strategy with COVID-19 and has one of the world’s leading vaccination programs, cases are now declining rapidly, and there is cautious optimism that its widely watched plan has helped it cross. a course in the pandemic.
Fiji welcomed its first tourists on Wednesday in more than 600 days after pushing forward plans to reopen despite the threat posed by omicron.
Dr Anthony Fauci, America’s leading infectious disease expert, said much more will be known about omicron in the coming weeks, and “we will have a much better idea of ââthe challenge ahead.”
Casert brought back from Brussels. PA journalists from around the world contributed to this report.
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