LONDON – The UK on Saturday tightened rules on the wearing of masks and testing international arrivals after two cases of the new potentially more infectious Omron version of the coronavirus were found as governments around the world sought to shore up their defenses.

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Amid fears that a recently identified new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines, there is growing concern that the pandemic and related lockdown restrictions will last much longer than expected.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was necessary to take “targeted and precautionary measures” after two people tested positive for the new version in England, and these would be reviewed in three weeks when scientists learn more about Omicron.

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Johnson told a news conference that anyone arriving in England would be asked to undergo a mandatory PCR test for COVID-19 on the second day and would have to self-isolate until they provided a negative test. . And if someone tests positive for the Omicron variant, he said their close contacts will have to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.

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He also said that wearing masks would be required in shops and on public transport and that the vaccination program would be intensified, without providing specific details.

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“Right now this is the responsible course of action to slow the spread and spread of this new version and to maximize our defenses,” he said. “From today we are going to promote the booster campaign.”

Of the two new cases, one was found in the southeastern English city of Brentwood, while the other is in the central city of Nottingham. The two cases are linked and involve travel from southern Africa. The two confirmed cases are self-isolating with their homes while contact tracing and targeted testing takes place.

The British government also added four more countries – Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia – to the country’s travel red list from Sunday. Six others – Botswana, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe were added on Friday. This means anyone arriving from those destinations will have to be quarantined.

Several countries have imposed restrictions over the past few days on various southern African countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, in response to warnings over the transmission of the new version – the World Health Organization’s against advice.

Despite the ban on flights, there is growing concern that this version has already been widely preferred around the world. In addition to the UK, cases have been reported in travelers in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong. Germany also said it suspected a positive case and that Dutch officials were testing whether the 61 people who arrived on two flights with COVID-19 from South Africa have the Omicron variant.

The planes arrived in the Netherlands from Johannesburg and Cape Town soon after the Dutch government banned flights to southern African countries. 539 passengers who tested negative were allowed to return home or continue traveling to other countries. Under government rules, people who live in the Netherlands and are allowed to return home must self-isolate for at least five days.

Meanwhile, a German official said it was “highly likely” that the Omicron version had already arrived in the country.

Hesse state health minister Kai Klos, which also includes Frankfurt, said in a tweet that “Omicron’s specific mutations” were found on Friday night in a passenger returning from South Africa who was isolated at home. The sequencing of the test had not yet been completed.

Italian authorities in the southern region of Campania were also investigating whether a person who had recently returned home from southern Africa and who tested positive for the virus was infected with the Omicron variant.

The global health body has named the new variant Omicron, which labels it a type of concern due to the high number of mutations and some early evidence that it carries a higher level of infection than other types. This means that people who contracted and recovered COVID-19 may be subject to catching it again. It may take weeks to know if existing vaccines are less effective against it.

With so much uncertainty about the Omicron version and scientists unlikely to present their findings for a few weeks, countries around the world are taking a safety-first approach, in the knowledge that past outbreaks of pandemics are partly loose borders. were inspired by. policies

Nearly two years after the start of the pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 5 million people worldwide, countries are on high alert.

The rapidly spreading variant among young people in South Africa has worried health professionals, although there was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease.

Several pharmaceutical firms, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, said they have plans to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of Omicron. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said they expect to be able to replace their vaccine in about 100 days.

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

Most of the mutations appear in the same regions as the other types, he said.

He told BBC radio: “At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a newer variant for severe disease, but in reality we will have to wait several weeks for it to be confirmed.” “

He added that it is “very unlikely that an epidemic will recur in a vaccinated population like the one we saw last year.”

Some experts said the emergence of the variant shows how the hoarding of vaccines from wealthy countries threatens to prolong the pandemic.

Less than 6% of people in Africa are fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can accelerate the spread of the virus, providing more opportunities for it to develop into a dangerous form.

“One of the major factors that could be driving the emergence of the variant is the low vaccination rates in some parts of the world, and the WHO warns that none of us are safe until we are all protected and taken care of. must be given,” said one professor, Peter Openshaw. of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.

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Geir Moulsen in Berlin, Mike Korder in The Hague, Netherlands and Colleen Barry in Milan contributed to this report.