The omicron variant puts the world in a ‘race against time’

(CNN) — The world is in a “race against time” with the omicron variant of the coronavirus, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Sunday.

“We take this omicron variant very seriously and we know that we are in a race against time,” he said during a visit to Latvia. There, Von der Leyen warned that it will take weeks for vaccine scientists and manufacturers to fully understand the new variant.

New omicron variant: what do we know so far? 1:36

As more cases are identified and governments around the world mobilize to respond to omicron, an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers will be convened on Monday, the UK said. The British government also announced new national public health rules on Sunday requiring face covering in stores and on public transport starting this week.

Where omicron has been identified

Ómicron was first identified by scientists in South Africa, who raised the alarm about its unusually high number of mutations on Thursday. Since then, at least a dozen more have confirmed cases of the new strain, and several others have reported suspicious cases.

Apart from South Africa, the variant has been found in Botswana, Belgium, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Hong Kong.

On Sunday, authorities in the Netherlands announced that at least 13 people tested positive at Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport after traveling from South Africa. The Netherlands National Institute of Public Health and Environment (RIVM) said in a statement that the variant had been detected by sequencing 61 positive covid-19 samples that were obtained at the airport on Friday. It is “possible that the new variant will be found in more test samples,” the institution noted.

Biostatistics professor Sheila Bird said the Amsterdam test results were concerning, but more data was needed. “There may be clusters of households among the 13 omicron positives or the clustering may have been induced by where the passengers sat on the flight from South Africa,” he told the Science Media Center. aAgreed that the vaccination status and age distribution of those infected should also be taken into account before drawing conclusions about the variant.

Red Cross workers transport coronavirus-infected passengers returning to the Netherlands from South Africa to a quarantined hotel.

The situation should be viewed with “alert rather than alarm until more is known,” he said.

Canadian health officials also confirmed the country’s first two omicron cases in Ottawa on Sunday. Both people carrying the variant had recently traveled from Nigeria, according to a joint statement by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Health Christine Elliott and Medical Director of Health Dr. Kieran Moore.

“We continue to urge the federal government to take the necessary measures to require tests at the point of arrival for all travelers, regardless of their origin, to further protect against the spread of this new variant,” the joint statement also says.

Variant of concern

The World Health Organization (WHO) has designated the omicron variant, originally referred to as B.1,1.529, a “variant of concern”.

The WHO said on Friday that preliminary evidence suggests that the omicron variant, first identified in South Africa, could pose an increased risk of reinfection and said some of the mutations detected in the variant were concerning.

But the WHO stressed that more research is needed to determine whether the variant is more contagious, causes more serious disease, and could evade vaccines.

“This variant has a large number of mutations and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead for covid-19, said in a statement Friday.

Worldwide concern over omicron variant of the coronavirus 1:51

“At the moment there are many studies in progress … so far there is little information, but those studies are ongoing, so we need researchers to have time to carry them out and WHO will inform the public, our partners and our member states as soon as we have more information, “he added.

Travel bans and new quarantine requirements

The discovery of the variant and its rapid spread around the world is an uncomfortable reminder that the pandemic is far from over.

Several countries have slammed their borders to travelers from southern Africa. The European Union, Japan, Australia, the United States, Canada, Rwanda and many others have banned travelers from countries such as South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

But South Africa and some of the other countries affected by the travel bans have responded. Speaking in Pretoria on Sunday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa described the bans as unfounded discrimination.

“These restrictions are unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our sister countries in southern Africa. The travel ban is not based on science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant. The only thing the travel ban will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and recover from the pandemic, “he said.

South Africa’s Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation has said the country is being punished for its transparency. “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished. The global community needs collaboration and partnerships in managing the covid-19 pandemic,” the ministry said in a statement.

“A combination of South Africa’s testing capacity and its strengthened vaccination program, supported by a world-class scientific community, should give our global partners peace of mind that we are doing as well as they are in managing the pandemic. South Africa follows and enforces globally recognized covid-19 health protocols on travel. Infected people are not allowed to leave the country, “he added.

Malawian President Lazarus Chakwera also criticized the travel bans, saying they were “unnecessary”. “Covid measures must be based on science, not afrophobia,” he said on his official Facebook page.

Fears over omicron variant cause Israel to close its borders 1:59

Many experts said the South African scientists deserved credit for their ability to quickly identify risks from the new variant.

The move to impose bans has also drawn criticism from the WHO. “We’ve seen in the past, the moment any type of variant is mentioned, everyone closes borders and restricts travel. It’s really important that we stay open and focused,” said Dr Michael Ryan, WHO Chief of Emergencies. Saturday.

“South Africa has very, very good genomic sequencing ability and capacity … certainly South Africa or any other country should be stigmatized for reporting it and doing the right thing,” Michael Head, senior researcher in global health at the University of Southampton, in a telephone interview.

However, Head said travel bans, if used correctly, could play a role in controlling the outbreak.

“It is a difficult scenario. It may give a little time. So if countries are imposing a ban and using that time, which at this point will be a few weeks, to increase the rate of vaccination and make sure that the new antiviral drugs are available in the country, to increase testing, genomic surveillance at airports, that kind of thing, that’s something that can be useful with a travel ban, “he said.

“If you just implement a travel ban and say ‘okay, job done’, that’s not good for anyone. And if you do, so to speak, you punish countries for reporting new variants, we should really seek to support them too, either infrastructure, funding, or vaccine doses, whichever is appropriate. “

Larry Madowo of CNN in Paris contributed to this report.