Mon, 03 Oct 2022

BEIJING, Dec. 1 (Xinhua) -- Omicron, a new COVID-19 variant, is whipping up winds of uncertainty around the world, as it makes its way to more countries and regions.

As many governments have tightened restrictions and imposed new travel bans, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned Tuesday that blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of Omicron.

"Blunt, blanket measures" are "not evidence-based or effective on their own," said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, urging countries to take "rational, proportional risk-reduction measures, in keeping with the International Health Regulations."

Meanwhile, experts worldwide are calling for greater global solidarity and cooperation in the pandemic fight, especially in bolstering vaccination campaigns. ON HIGH ALERT

Brazil became on Tuesday the first Latin American country to report a case of Omicron, which involved a couple.

Japan also confirmed on Tuesday the country's first case of Omicron, a Namibian diplomat who tested positive for COVID-19 at Narita International Airport near Tokyo upon his arrival on Sunday.

Also on Tuesday, Portugal registered a new case of Omicron, which has been linked to a football team where the country's first batch of infections with the new variant was detected.

More countries and regions have responded to Omicron with fresh or enhanced restrictive measures, as the variant was reported in multiple countries in Africa, Europe and the Americas, as well as in Israel and Australia.

On Tuesday, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa said with immediate effect, all returning residents and visitors will undergo PCR testing and quarantine at their own costs, curfew hours have been increased to run from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m., and no alcohol will be consumed at bottle stores, while nightclubs and bars will admit vaccinated clients only. He also urged the unvaccinated to get the jabs.

Later on Tuesday, Spain's Health Minister Carolina Darias confirmed that the government was expected to approve further restrictions on flights from several African countries.

New measures were already announced in Spain on Saturday, including the requirement for travelers arriving in the country from South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe to present a negative COVID-19 test and spend 10 days in preventive quarantine.

As eight more cases of Omicron have been identified in England, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Tuesday that everyone over the age of 18 will be offered a booster vaccine by the end of January.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised on Monday that all adults in the country should get a COVID-19 booster shot following the emergence of Omicron, though no case has yet been reported in the United States.

Israel announced Tuesday that it will begin tests to detect Omicron in factories, while Ecuador's Health Minister Ximena Garzon said on the same day that the country will increase COVID-19 PCR testing and sequencing of samples in a bid to swiftly detect any possible cases of the new variant. MUCH TO LEARN

Although having labeled Omicron as a "variant of concern," the WHO said in an updated travel advice that blanket travel bans, which have been imposed by many countries, will only place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods, while also "disincentivizing countries to report and share epidemiological and sequencing data."

"While most of the cases identified in these countries are travel-related, this may change as more information becomes available," the WHO said Tuesday in its COVID-19 Weekly Epidemiological Update.

Apart from the WHO, experts and officials in many countries have also cautioned against hasty travel bans, stressing that the priority for now should be to further learn about the variant, and to promote vaccination worldwide.

"At this point, scientists are trying to figure out if this new variant has increased transmissibility and found ways to evade some of our immune responses," Adrian Puren, acting director of South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases, said Tuesday.

While Omicron is highly contagious, "what we don't know is whether it can compete with Delta," Francis Collins, director the U.S. National Institutes of Health, told CNN on Sunday.

The unilateral travel bans, which are not based on scientific rigor and evidence, "have many undesired impacts, including stalling much needed economic recovery in the Global South, stoking tensions and sowing seeds of division between countries and citizens," Namibian President Hage Geingob said Monday in a statement.

"The science is clear: vaccines are our best and most effective tool against COVID-19: they substantially reduce the risk of serious complications and death," the presidents of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia said Monday in a joint appeal.

It is still too early to tell whether Omicron will replace Delta as the most widely prevalent variant, Qian Zhaohui, an expert at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences, said Tuesday, adding it is necessary to conduct further monitoring and research on the new variant's ability to evade the immunity provided by current vaccines. SOLIDARITY IN NEED

"While we still need to know more about Omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world's population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged," Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, or The Vaccine Alliance, a leading partner in the global vaccine sharing program COVAX, said in an email to CNBC.

"The world needs to work together to ensure equitable access to vaccines, now," he urged.

Berkley is not the only one calling for global efforts to bolster vaccination numbers amid the rise of Omicron-related infections.

"Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics," Tedros said Monday. "The same principles apply: Courageous and compassionate leadership; Fidelity to science; Generosity in sharing the fruits of research; And an unshakeable commitment to equity and solidarity."

According to the latest figures from the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 6.5 percent of the continent's population has been fully vaccinated. The WHO said recently that only five African countries are projected to hit the year-end target of fully vaccinating 40 percent of their people, unless efforts to accelerate the pace take off.

To further help Africa in its anti-pandemic fight, China announced on Monday a pledge to provide another 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to the continent.

"This will be the biggest COVID-19 vaccine support ever given to African countries by a single country," Gerald Mbanda, Rwandan researcher and publisher on China-Africa cooperation and founder of Africa-China Review news website, said Tuesday.

Charles Onunaiju, director of the Abuja-based Center for China Studies, said Tuesday that the pledge came "in the nick of time and justifies the longstanding solidarity and cooperation between China and Africa in tackling this most serious challenge that is facing the world now."

(Xinhua reporters Liu Qu from Geneva, Shooka Shemirani Arbabzadeh from Rio de Janeiro, Wang Jingyi from Tokyo, Wen Xinnian from Lisbon, Zhang Yuliang from Harare, Paul Giblin from Madrid, Xia Lin from New York, Eran Lahav from Jerusalem, Rebeca Toledo from Quito, Kaula Nhongo from Windhoek, Chen Hao from Budapest, Jin Jing from Johannesburg, Wang Ping from Addis Ababa, Ji Li from Kigali, and Guo Jun from Abuja also contributed to the story.)

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