World races to contain new Covid threat, called the Omicron variant; EU countries tighten travel rules
The B.1.1.529 variant, first detected in South Africa, is reportedly more transmissible and has been classified as a "Variant of Concern" by the World Health Organization
Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, the world has raced to contain a new coronavirus variant potentially more dangerous than the one that has fuelled relentless waves of infection on nearly every continent.
A World Health Organization panel named the variant omicron and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the predominant delta variant, which is still a scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States.
It seems to spread rapidly, US President Joe Biden said of the new variant, only a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and the sense that normal life was coming back at least for the vaccinated. In announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters, I've decided that we're going to be cautious.
Omicron's actual risks are not understood. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.
In response to the variant's discovery in southern Africa, the United States, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries joined the European Union in restricting travel for visitors from that region, where the variant brought on a fresh surge of infections.
The White House said the US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday. Biden said that means no travel to or from the designated countries except for returning US citizens and permanent residents who test negative.
A slew of European countries have restricted travel from southern Africa amid concerns over the new Covid-19 variant.
The B.1.1.529 variant, first detected in South Africa, is reportedly more transmissible and has been classified as a "Variant of Concern" by the World Health Organization, Xinhua news agency reported.
The European Union (EU) has said that it wants to activate the so-called "emergency brake" to stop air travel from the southern African region to delay the variant spread in Europe.
In line with the EU's recommendation, the Irish government has announced new restrictions regarding travel to and from seven southern African countries.
The seven countries, namely Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, are selected based on detection of cases of the new variant or geographical proximity to those countries where cases have been detected, the government said in a statement.
Ireland's Department of Foreign Affairs has changed its travel advisory to "avoid non-essential travel" to these countries, it said.
According to the statement, Irish residents returning home from these countries will be required to undergo strict home quarantine even if they have been fully vaccinated against Covid-19, or have recovered from the disease in the last six months, or have tested negative within 72 hours before their departure.
Italy on Friday also banned the arrival of travelers who have been to the seven southern African states -- same as listed by the Irish government -- within the previous two weeks in reaction to the emergence of the new variant.
Greece announced that travel restrictions are imposed for arrivals from nine African countries -- seven above-mentioned countries plus Zambia and Malawi.
As of November 27, travel to Greece from the nine countries is only allowed for essential reasons and by special permit from Greek embassies or embassies which represent Greece in those countries, read an e-mailed press release from the Greek health ministry.
All travellers from those countries, including Greek citizens, will be required to remain in quarantine for 10 days upon arrival and they will also be required to take three Covid-19 tests regardless of whether they are fully vaccinated.
Elsewhere in Europe, Cyprus also joined other EU countries in imposing an entry ban on people travelling from southern Africa, while some countries like Spain are also considering measures to restrict flights from the region.
With agencies inputs
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Published: 27 Nov 2021, 8:12 AM