The WHO has warned the new Omicron Covid super-mutant poses a ‘very high’ risk to the global pandemic recovery with ‘severe consequences’ possible if it causes a new wave of infections.
‘Omicron has an unprecedented number of mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,’ the WHO said, amid fears the new variant is much more infectious than previous strains including Delta. ‘The overall global risk related to the new variant …is assessed as very high.’
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, sounded the alarm at the start of an assembly of health ministers as he pressed leaders to negotiate a legally-binding treaty on how future pandemics will be managed.
‘The emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is,’ Tedros said. ‘Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores.’
He spoke as countries rushed to reimpose travel restrictions that had just started to ease after South Africa identified the Omicron variant, with Japan banning all foreign arrivals starting at midnight and Australia putting the brakes on plans to ease its travel ban so that visa holders and skilled workers can enter the country.
Meanwhile police in the Netherlands said they had arrested a couple who broke out of a quarantine hotel for suspected Omicron cases on Sunday and boarded a flight out of the country before being stopped.
Border police said they arrested a couple on a plane at Schiphol Airport after they ran from a hotel where Covid-19 positive passengers from South Africa were being quarantined.
‘The arrests took place as the plane was about to take off,’ the Marechaussee police force said on Twitter, adding that the pair had been handed over to the public health authority.
Elsewhere on Monday…
- Portugal confirmed its first cases of Omicron in 13 players and staff linked to Belenenses football club, after one player travelled to South Africa to play for the national team
- Switzerland uncovered its first ‘probable’ Omicron case, while imposing new rules on 10 countries where cases have been confirmed, including the UK
- Swiss people voted to keep Covid restrictions in place following a nationwide referendum at the weekend
- Philippines said it will delay reopening its border to vaccinated tourists which was due to take place Wednesday, without making it clear when the ban will lift
- Japan closed its borders to all foreign arrivals from midnight with citizens from ‘high risk’ countries forced into quarantine to slow the spread of the variant
- Australia delayed plans to reopen its borders to visa holders and skilled workers for two weeks from December 1 while it evaluates the new variant
Omicron, which was first identified in South Africa but is thought to have originated in Botswana, is the most-mutated form of Covid yet found and has been declared a ‘variant of concern’ by the WHO because early data suggests it is more-infectious than the Delta strain and may have an increased ability to infect vaccinated people.
But data is limited to just a few dozen cases and huge question marks remain, including whether Omicron causes more serious disease as well as being more infectious. Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who treated the first known cases, has said that so-far the symptoms seem milder than the Delta variant.
Countries are rushing to impose new border rules in an attempt to slow the spread of the variant, with Australia (pictured) saying that plans to allow fully vaccinated visa holders into the country will be delayed by two weeks from December 1
Japan will ban all foreigners from entering the country starting at midnight on Monday, with citizens returning from nations deemed ‘high risk’ forced into quarantine (pictured, a man at Tokyo airport)
WHO director Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus (pictured) called for a global treaty on how to deal with future pandemics as the health body warned Omicron poses a ‘very high’ risk to the global Covid recovery
Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced new border closures on Monday, coming just weeks after Japan reopened to foreign travellers
The most-common symptoms of Omicron are extreme fatigue, increased heart-rate and a scratchy throat, she said. None of the patients she has treated for the variant have become sick enough to require hospital treatment.
Britain, the current head of the G7 presidency, has called a meeting of health ministers due to take place today to discuss the potential problems that Omicron poses.
The prestigious Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome on Sunday released the first ‘image’ of the new strain and confirmed there were many more mutations than seen in the Delta variant, though added that does not automatically mean it is more dangerous.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday governments faced a ‘race against time’ to understand the strain and that vaccine manufacturers needed two to three weeks ‘to get a full picture of the quality of the mutations’.
A long list of countries have already imposed travel restrictions on southern Africa, including key travel hub Qatar, as well as the United States, Britain, Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Netherlands.
Israel has announced some of the strictest curbs, closing the borders to all foreigners just four weeks after reopening to tourists following a prolonged closure.
Angola on Sunday became the first southern African country to suspend all flights from its regional neighbours Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.
South Africa has strongly protested the new restrictions, with its foreign ministry claiming it is being ‘punished’ for first identifying a strain that has now been detected everywhere from the Netherlands to the UK, Canada to Hong Kong.
President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday urged countries to lift the travel bans ‘before any further damage is done to our economies’, while his counterpart in Malawi, Lazarus Chakwera, accused Western countries of ‘Afrophobia’ for shutting their borders.
The head of the World Health Organization in Africa also urged countries to follow the science rather than impose flight bans in a bid to contain the new Covid strain.
‘With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,’ WHO regional director Matshidiso Moeti said.
But in a sign of optimism, Singapore and Malaysia eased coronavirus travel restrictions on one of the world’s busiest land borders after nearly two years.
As of Monday, vaccinated citizens, those holding permanent residency status and work permits can cross the one-kilometre (0.6-mile) causeway separating the countries without having to quarantine.
And despite the new threat, tens of thousands rallied in Austria to protest the government’s recent introduction of compulsory vaccination – the first EU country to do so.
Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said it was ‘a minor interference’ compared to the alternative for a country with one of the lowest vaccination rates in Western Europe.
Meanwhile, France’s Health Ministry said on Sunday it had detected eight possible cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant across the country after the government announced it would tighten restrictions to contain its spread.
And two cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, first detected in Southern Africa last week, have been confirmed in Canada, provincial health officials said on Sunday.
Omicron is potentially more contagious than previous variants, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe Covid-19 compared to other strains.
Switzerland votes to KEEP its Covid restrictions in referendum as first suspected case of Omicron is logged
Swiss voters on Sunday backed the government’s pandemic response plan in a referendum by a clear majority, paving the way for the continuation of exceptional measures to stem the rising tide of COVID-19 cases.
The government’s tally of Sunday’s vote showed a wider-than-expected majority of 62 per cent of voters support laws that require Covid health passes to enter bars, restaurants and certain events.
It came as Switzerland reported its first probably case of the Omicron variant on Sunday, as entry requirements were tightened to check its spread.
The case relates to a person who returned to Switzerland from South Africa around a week ago, the Federal Office for Public Health said on Twitter.
Testing will clarify the situation in the coming days, it added.
Switzerland has ordered that travellers from 19 countries must present a negative test when boarding a fight to the country, and must go into quarantine for 10 days on arrival.
The list includes Australia, Denmark, Britain, Czech Republic, South Africa and Israel.
‘They are being considered as possibly being contaminated with the Omicron variant having been to southern Africa in the last 14 days,’ the French Health Ministry said in a statement.
It said further tests were being carried out to fully confirm it was Omicron, but the people and those they had been in contact with were now in isolation.
France is in the midst of a fifth wave of the virus. It recorded more than 31,600 positive COVID-19 cases on Sunday having seen a sharp rise in the number of patients in intensive care the previous day.
Health Minister Olivier Veran had earlier told reporters at a vaccination centre in Paris that the government would do its utmost to contain the spread of the new variant.
He said that any contact that a person at risk of a possible case or a confirmed case of the Omicron variant, even vaccinated, would now have to isolate. Those people should be considered ‘high risk’ and quarantined.
Until now, contact cases of an infected person had to be isolated only when they were not fully vaccinated or when they had weak immune systems.
France has also suspended all flights from southern Africa until at least December 1 and stepped up protocols for people coming from its nearby overseas territories of La Reunion and Mayotte, the ministry said.
The Canadian cases were reported in two people who recently travelled to Nigeria, the Ontario government said in a statement.
On Friday, Canada closed its borders to foreign travellers who have recently been to seven Southern African nations in the preceding two weeks to help stop the spread of the newly identified variant of Covid-19.
‘Today, the province of Ontario has confirmed two cases of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in Ottawa, both of which were reported in individuals with recent travel from Nigeria. Ottawa Public Health is conducting case and contact management and the patients are in isolation,’ the statement said.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible than other variants, or if it causes more severe disease.
Portugal has confirmed 13 cases of the new Omicron Covid variant, all linked to Lisbon football team Belenenses who were forced to play a game against Benfica on Saturday with just nine men (pictured) because the rest were in isolation
The WHO has warned that the new variant – which appears to be more transmissible than any previous variant – poses a ‘very high’ risk to the global pandemic recovery with ‘severe’ consequences if it produces a new wave of infection (file image)
What do we know about the Omicron variant?
Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organisation as Omicron, as it has around 30 different mutations – double the amount present in the Delta variant. The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.
UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.
On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium but currently there are no known cases in the UK.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported.
Work is also under way to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will ‘almost certainly’ make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines.
Meanwhile, Christmas getaways to Europe have been plunged into crisis after Switzerland announced it has banned all Britons with immediate effect amid concerns of the rising cases of the Covid super-mutant Omicron.
Switzerland has said that only Swiss nationals and permanent residents can enter, but a pre-departure negative test must be proven alongside a 10-day mandatory quarantine.
Israel shut its borders to all foreigners and brought back phone-tracking late on Saturday in a bid to crack down on the rising cases.
This news comes as tough new border restrictions in Spain will also require Brits to be fully-vaccinated to enter the country.
Switzerland on Saturday widened quarantine requirements to stem the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant to travellers arriving from Britain, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Egypt and Malawi, where cases have been detected, its health ministry said.
On Friday, Switzerland banned direct flights from South Africa and the surrounding region due to the detection of a new COVID-19 variant, while also imposing restrictions on travel from other countries including Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.
Entry from those countries would only be possible for Swiss citizens or those with a residence permit in Switzerland or the broader Schengen area.
This strengthens the previous restriction, announced just yesterday, which was that all flight passenger arrivals had to quarantine.
Now, following the detection of new Omicron cases, travellers from Britain, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Egypt and Malawi will need to present a negative COVID-19 test and quarantine for ten days as well, the Federal Office of Public Health said in a tweet.
It did not state whether travel from those countries would be limited to Swiss citizens and residents or not.
Two cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant have also been detected in the southern German state of Bavaria and in Italy, both neighbours of Switzerland, but Switzerland has thus far not imposed travel restrictions on any countries with which it shares borders.
Israel has slam shut its borders to all foreign nationals, in a strict new measure, and is mandating quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.
Israel placed the southern African nations Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe on its ‘red list’ because of the discovery of the variant.
Israel said it would ban the entry of all foreigners into the country and reintroduce counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology to contain the spread of the variant.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement that the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Israelis entering the country, including those who are vaccinated, will be required to quarantine.
The ban will come into effect at midnight between Sunday and Monday. A travel ban on foreigners coming from most African states was imposed on Friday.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement from his office: ‘We are close to an emergency situation… we must act strongly and quickly.’
Anti-lockdown also protesters demonstrated in the Hague after the government introduced new Covid-19 restrictions under a ‘light’ lockdown – and banned new years eve fireworks to prevent excess hospitalisations as doctors in the Netherlands focus on treating virus patients.
And Germany, Italy and the UK became the latest states to detect cases of the highly transmissible and potentially vaccine resistant Omicron strain, which was discovered in South Africa this week.
Authorities in Australia said two overseas travellers who arrived in Sydney from Africa became the first in the country to test positive for the super variant.
Officials confirmed Sunday that the two passengers were asymptomatic and were both vaccinated for COVID-19.
They were among a group of 14 passengers, who have now all gone into quarantine.
The discovery of the variant has sparked global concern, a wave of travel bans from southern Africa and fears over low vaccination rates. The new variant has also emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in Covid-19 infections, and some have re-introduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread.
The Philippines has kicked off a new nationwide vaccine campaign as it tries to protect its population against the new variant, with just 28 per cent of its population fully jabbed
Dozens of people wait to get AstraZeneca vaccines as part of a new three-day drive to protect those living in the Philippines against Covid, as a new and more-infectious variant emerges
Omicron DOES spread rapidly and can be transmitted between fully-vaccinated people, says UK government
The Omicron Covid-19 variant does spread rapidly and can be transmitted between full-vaccinated people, the UK government said at a press conference tonight.
It comes amid fears the new super-mutant strain makes jabs 40 per cent less effective after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the variant ‘might in part reduce the effectiveness of vaccines over time’.
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said it is not yet clear how effective the vaccine will be as protection against it – but said those who are vaccinated or receive the booster jab will be less likely to become seriously ill.
He said it is ‘inevitable’ the Omicron variant will spread across the world over the next few days but added the majority of cases in the UK remain to be of the Delta variant.
He warned there is currently significant rates of transmission among young people but noted that rates among people aged over 60 and vulnerable groups are improving, meaning hospitalisations and deaths continue to decrease.
The Shin Bet counter-terrorism agency’s phone-tracking technology will be used to locate carriers of the new variant in order to curb its transmission to others, Bennett said.
Used on and off since March 2020, the surveillance technology matched virus carriers’ locations against other mobile phones nearby to determine with whom they had come into contact.
Israel’s Supreme Court this year limited the scope of its use after civil rights groups mounted challenges over privacy concerns.
Israel has so far confirmed one case of Omicron, with seven suspected cases. The Health Ministry has not said whether the confirmed case was vaccinated.
Spain has also announced a ban on unvaccinated Brit tourists after neighbour Portugal said it would demand proof of a negative coronavirus test to let even the double-jabbed enter the country.
Officials have said anyone over age 12 must have had both doses of the jab even though the UK’s vaccination rules don’t allow second doses for that age group, Spain will therefore consider them unvaccinated.
The tightening-up of regulations governing entry to the UK’s favourite foreign holiday destination comes into force on Wednesday, ending an exemption which means travellers without their Covid jabs could enter Spain with a negative test or proof of recovery from Covid.
The Spanish government confirmed the change in an official state bulletin published on Saturday.
Antonio Mayor, President of Benidorm-based hotel association Hosbec, said he thought the effect would be ‘minimal’ on the Brit-popular Costa Blanca resort where the classic winter tourist is over 50 and double-jabbed.
But he added: ‘Anything that creates barriers is less tourism.’
Officials have said the move will not not affected the estimated 300,000 Brits living in Spain.
The country’s decision to tighten regulations follows Portugal’s announcement that visitors will have to show proof of a negative coronavirus test to entry the country from December 1, even if they are fully-vaccinated.
The decision was taken before confirmation the new Omicron coronavirus variant had been detected in several European countries.
Portugal confirmed fines for those caught trying to dodge the new crackdown would face fines of between £255 and £680.
The measure is part of a package of new restrictions designed to tackle a new rise in the number of coronavirus cases.
Covid passports will become obligatory to enter restaurants, hotels and gyms in Portugal.
Discos have been told they must close between January 2 and 9 and the return to school after the festive season has been put back by a week to January 10.
Fines for airlines that transport anyone without proof of a Covid-19 test have been put at nearly £17,000.
Another 39,567 Covid cases were recorded in the UK today – down 3.36 per cent from 40,941 posted last Saturday – while the number of people who have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid fell by 12.7 per cent from 150 last week to 131
Graphs shown at a Downing Street press conference on Saturday showed the number of people who have been jabbed
Several regions of Spain have also started demanding Covid passports, or have indicated they will seek court authorisation to do so, for entry to places such as bars, nightclubs and hospitals.
The Health Secretary said the government was taking ‘proportionate and balanced’ precautions to ‘buy time’, confirming that masks will be compulsory again in shops and on public transport from Tuesday.
According to a message on the passenger locator form section of the Government’s website, day two tests for arrivals in the UK will also need to be PCRs rather than lateral flows from 4am on Tuesday.
But Mr Javid stressed there is no certainty that the ‘super-mutant’ strain will be able to dodge vaccines, or to what extent that could happen.
And asked whether there could be a return of even tougher curbs such as social distancing, he said there the government is ‘nowhere near’ that.
Urging people to keep planning for the festive season as they have been, Mr Javid told Sky News: ‘It’s going to be a great Christmas.’
The Cabinet minister said he was still only aware of two Omicron cases in the UK.
Mr Javid said the government will consider updating the recognised symptoms for Covid, after being told on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show that reports in southern Africa suggested people did not lose sense of smell or taste and suffered more fatigue.
‘We will of course if we need to,’ he said.
The reassurance effort came after Boris Johnson announced changes to testing and isolation rules, and mandatory masks in shops and on trains in a bid to prevent the spread of the highly transmissible new variant.
At a hastily-arranged Downing Street press conference last night the PM painted a grim picture of the potential threat from the new ‘super-mutant’ strain – admitting he cannot guarantee Christmas will go ahead as hoped.