Governments have taken steps to tighten their borders as cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus appeared in countries on opposite sides of the world.
apan was the latest to take action as it said it will suspend the entry of all foreign visitors from around the world as the variant spreads.
“We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan,” said Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. He said the measure will take effect on Tuesday.
The decision means Japan will restore border controls that it eased earlier this month for short-term business visitors, foreign students and workers.
Mr Kishida urged people to continue with mask wearing and other basic anti-virus measures until further details of the new Omicron variant are known.
Many countries have moved to tighten their borders even as scientists warned that it is not clear if the new variant is more alarming than other versions of the virus.
The variant was identified days ago by researchers in South Africa, and much is still not known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade the protection of vaccines.
But many countries rushed to act, reflecting anxiety about anything that could prolong the pandemic that has killed more than five million people.
Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting on Monday — among the most drastic of a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scrambled to slow the variant’s spread.
Scientists in several places — from Hong Kong to Europe to North America — have confirmed its presence. The Netherlands reported 13 Omicron cases on Sunday, and both Canada and Australia each found two.
Noting that the variant has already been detected in many countries and that closing borders often has limited effect, the World Health Organisation (WHO) called for frontiers to remain open.
Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, meanwhile, emphasised that there is no data yet that suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous Covid-19 variants.
“I do think it’s more contagious when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa. It has the earmarks therefore of being particularly likely to spread from one person to another. What we don’t know is whether it can compete with Delta,” said Dr Collins.
Dr Collins echoed several experts in saying the news should make everyone redouble their efforts to use the tools the world already has, including vaccinations, booster shots and measures such as mask-wearing.
“I know, America, you’re really tired about hearing those things, but the virus is not tired of us,” Dr Collins said.
The Dutch public health authority confirmed that 13 people who arrived from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for Omicron.
They were among 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport before a flight ban was implemented. They were immediately put into isolation, most at a nearby hotel.
Canada’s health minister said the country’s first two cases of Omicron were found in Ontario after two individuals who had recently travelled from Nigeria tested positive.
Authorities in Australia said two travellers who arrived in Sydney from Africa became the first in the country to test positive for the new variant. Arrivals from nine African countries are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival.
Two German states reported a total of three cases in returning travellers over the weekend.
The US plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries starting from Monday.
“It’s going to give us a period of time to enhance our preparedness,” said the United States’ top infectious diseases expert, Dr Anthony Fauci.
Many countries are introducing such bans, though they go against the advice of the WHO, which has warned against any over-reaction before the variant is thoroughly studied.
Dr Fauci said it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of Omicron, according to a statement from the White House.
South Africa’s government responded angrily to the travel bans, which it said are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker”.
The WHO sent out a statement saying it “stands with African nations” and noting that travel restrictions may play “a role in slightly reducing the spread of Covid-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods”.
It said if restrictions are put in place, they should be scientifically based and not intrusive.
.@WHO is working with scientists around the world to better understand key aspects of the Omicron variant and its impact on the key tools. Here is the information we have so far and what we still need to find out https://t.co/Q2pJzwlMdp
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) November 28, 2021
In Europe, much of which already has been struggling recently with a sharp increase in cases, officials were on guard.
The UK on Saturday tightened rules on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two Omicron cases, but Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the Government was nowhere near reinstituting work from home or more severe social-distancing measures.
“We know now those types of measures do carry a very heavy price, both economically, socially, in terms of non-Covid health outcomes such as impact on mental health,” he said.
Spain announced it will not admit unvaccinated British visitors starting from December 1. Italy was going through lists of airline passengers who arrived in the past two weeks. France is continuing to push vaccinations and booster shots.
David Hui, a respiratory medicine expert and government adviser on the pandemic in Hong Kong, agreed with that strategy.
He said the two people who tested positive for the Omicron variant had received the Pfizer vaccine and exhibited very mild symptoms, such as a sore throat.
“Vaccines should work but there would be some reduction in effectiveness,” he said.