Politics

World on alert as UK reports cases


Britain is the latest country to report cases of the new and potentially more contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus, as world governments sought to shore up their defences by slapping restrictions on travel from nations in southern Africa.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that two people have tested positive with the omicron variant in the southeastern English town of Chelmsford and in the central city of Nottingham. He said the cases were linked and related to travel from southern Africa.

Javid said the two confirmed cases are self-isolating alongside their households while contact tracing and targeted testing takes place.

A sign reading Stay safe in Regent Street, in London, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021.
UK health secretary says that 2 cases of new coronavirus variant omicron identified in Britain, says they are linked. (AP)

He also said arrivals from Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia will have to quarantine from Sunday and stressed the importance of booster jabs.

“This is a real reminder that this pandemic is far from over,” he said. “If we need to take further action, we will.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, along with his top advisers, will be holding a media briefing later Saturday.

People lineup to get on the Air France flight to Paris at OR Tambos airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021.
As the world grapples with the emergence of the new highly transmissible variant of COVID-19, worried scientists in South Africa — where omicron was first identified — are scrambling to combat its lightning spread across the country (AP)

Pharmaceutical companies expressed optimism that they could finesse their vaccines to deal with the new variant though that would clearly take some time.

Germany also said it suspected a positive case and Dutch authorities were testing whether 61 people who arrived on two flights from South Africa with COVID-19 have the Omicron variant.

Signs at the Rauher Busch ski slope point out the applicable Corona rules
Health officials in Germany tweeted “several mutations typical of Omicron” were found Friday night in a traveller returning from South Africa (AP)
A public order official checks the COVID-19 vaccination certificates of skiers at the Rauher Busch ski slope in Winterberg, Germany, Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021.
They said there’s a “very high probability” that the Omicron variant has already arrived in the country (AP)

The planes arrived in the Netherlands from Johannesburg and Cape Town shortly after the Dutch government imposed a ban on flights from southern African nations.

The 539 travellers who tested negative were allowed to return home or continue their journeys to other countries. Under government regulations, those who live in the Netherlands and are allowed to return home must self-isolate for at least five days.

Meanwhile, a German official said that there’s a “very high probability” that the Omicron variant has already arrived in the country.

Kai Klose, the health minister for Hesse state, which includes Frankfurt, said in a tweet that “several mutations typical of Omicron” were found Friday night in a traveller returning from South Africa, who was isolated at home. Sequencing of the test had yet to be completed.

People lineup to get on an overseas flight at OR Tambos airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021.
Dutch authorities were testing whether 61 people who arrived on two flights from South Africa with COVID-19 have the Omicron variant (AP)

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.

With so much uncertainty about the Omicron variant and scientists unlikely to flesh out their findings for a few weeks, countries around the world have been taking a safety-first approach, in the knowledge that previous outbreaks of the pandemic have been partly fuelled by lax border policies.

Nearly two years on since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than 5 million lives around the world, countries are on high alert.

President Joe Biden talks about the newly approved COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11 from the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex in Washington, Nov. 3, 2021.
Bidens team views the pandemic as the root cause of both the nations malaise and his own political woes. (AP)

The variant’s swift spread among young people in South Africa has alarmed health professionals even though there was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. In just two weeks, omicron has turned a period of low transmission in the country into one of rapid growth.

A number of pharmaceutical firms, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, said they have plans in place to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of omicron. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said they expect to be able to tweak their vaccine in around 100 days.

Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the Omicron variant.

Director of the Oxford Vaccine Group which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the Omicron variant. (AP)

He said most of the mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in other variants.

“That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we’ve moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta,” he told BBC radio.

“At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed.”

He added that it is “extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.”

Fewer than 6 per cent of people in Africa have been fully immunised against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose (Dennis Farrell/AP)

Some experts said the variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.

Fewer than 6 per cent of people in Africa have been fully immunised against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.

“One of the key factors to emergence of variants may well be low vaccination rates in parts of the world, and the WHO warning that none of us is safe until all of us are safe and should be heeded,” said Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.

“Global vaccine rollout is vital,” he added.



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