Threat of Omicron keeps world on edge: Tracking new COVID-19 variant cases and restrictions across globe

Days after the new COVID-19 variant Omicron was identified in South Africa, more countries are moving to close their borders to stem its spread

Air China flight crew members in hazmat suits walk through the arrivals area at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles. AP

The heavily mutated Omicron variant of the coronavirus has been identified in new countries around the globe and wreaking overall havoc.

Here’s what we know so far:

Dominance in South Africa

The Omicron variant has become dominant in South Africa, authorities announced on Wednesday. According to records, the new cases of COVID-19 nearly doubled in a day, signalling a dramatic surge in the country.

New confirmed cases rose to 8,561 Wednesday from 4,373 a day earlier, according to official statistics.

“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” Dr Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, regional virologist for the World Health Organization, told The Associated Press. “There is a possibility that we are going to see a vast increase in the number of cases being identified in South Africa.”

Cases in other countries

On Wednesday, director-general of World Health Organisation (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in his press briefing said that the Omicron COVID-19 variant had now spread to 23 different countries.

According to the WHO list, Botswana has reported 19 Omicron cases whereas South Africa had a tally of 77 infections. Nigeria had reported three cases.

The Omicron ‘variant of concern’ has also rapidly spread to Europe with countries like United Kingdom (22 cases), Austria (one case), Belgium (one case), Czech Republic (one case), France (one case), Germany (nine cases), Italy (nine cases), Netherlands (16 cases), Norway (two cases), Spain (two cases), Portugal (13 cases), Sweden (three cases) and Denmark (four cases) all reporting cases of the new variant.

Besides these countries, Australia (seven cases), Brazil (three cases), Hong Kong (four cases), Canada (six cases), Japan (two cases) and Israel (two cases) have also reported cases of the new COVID-19 variant.

On Thursday morning, United States also confirmed that the Omicron coronavirus variant had been identified in California. In a White House news briefing, Dr Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said the case was in fully-vaccinated individual who travelled from South Africa on 22 November and tested positive for on 29 November.

With the Omicron variant being identified in the US, it has been reported that the Joe Biden administration will extend existing requirements for travellers to wear masks on airplanes, buses, trains and boats, as well as in airports and other transportation hubs, through March.

Restrictions around the world

According to a Reuters report, authorities in Indonesia have tightened border curbs, extended quarantine and limited movement on strategic toll roads, in a preemptive move to limit the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

The southeast Asian nation has also extended mandatory quarantine for arrivals from seven days to 10.

Japan, in the meantime, has softened its suspension of all new incoming flight bookings to make it easier for citizens to return, a day after it announced the move prompted by worries about the Omicron coronavirus variant.

The transport ministry abruptly said Wednesday it was asking airlines to stop taking all new incoming flight reservations for a month, in a surprise move affecting citizens and foreign residents.

But on Thursday, government spokesman Hirokazu Matsuno said it would be amended.

In Greece, lawmakers approved a legislation making vaccination for COVID-19 mandatory for all residents aged over 60. Some 17 percent of Greeks aged over 60 have not yet been vaccinated. They have until 16 January to get their first jabs, or will be fined 100 euros ($113) for every month they remain unvaccinated.

Dozens of countries have imposed stricter travel rules, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Wednesday it was requiring all air travellers entering the country to show a negative COVID-19 test performed within one day of departure.

According to the WHO, 56 countries had implemented some travel measures to guard against Omicron.

WHO speaks

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters: “At least 23 countries from five of six WHO regions have now reported cases of omicron and we expect that number to grow. WHO takes this development extremely seriously and so should every country. But it should not surprise us.

“This is what viruses do. And it’s what this virus will continue to do, as we long as we allow it to continue spreading.”

Tedros said there is still more to learn about the new variant’s effect on transmission, the severity of disease and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics and vaccines. He urged countries to bolster vaccination efforts and other prevention measures, noting that low vaccine coverage and testing in countries is a “recipe for breeding and amplifying variants.”

With inputs from agencies

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