Omicron variant: UK tightens rules, WHO designates it as worrying variant

LONDON – The UK tightened regulations on Saturday on mask wearing and testing international visitors after detecting two new cases of the more contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus identified just a few days ago. days ago in South Africa.

Amid concerns that the new variant may be resistant to vaccine protection, there are growing concerns around the world that the pandemic and the restrictions associated with containment will last longer than expected. wait.

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

Many countries have imposed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa as they seek to buy time to assess whether the omicron variant is more transmittable than the current delta variant.

In a bid to slow the spread in the UK, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “preventive and targeted measures” need to be taken after two people tested positive for the new variant. in the UK.

“Right now, it is a responsible action to slow the seeding and spread of this new variant and to maximize our defenses,” he said at a press conference. he said at a press conference.

Among the measures announced, Johnson said anyone arriving in the UK would be required to take a mandatory PCR test for COVID-19 on the second day of their arrival and must self-isolate until the results are available. 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 – close contacts are currently exempt from quarantine rules if they are fully vaccinated.

He also said the wearing of masks in shops and on public transport would be required and said the group of independent scientists advising the UK government on the rollout of a coronavirus vaccine had were asked to accelerate the vaccination program.

This may involve extending the booster program to younger age groups, reducing the interval between the second and booster doses, and allowing older children to receive a second dose.

“From today, we will step up the reinforcement campaign,” he said.

The UK Department of Health said the two cases found in the UK were related and linked to travel from southern Africa.

One of the two new cases occurred in the town of Brentwood, in southeastern England, while the other was in the central city of Nottingham.

Two confirmed cases are self-isolating from their households while contact tracing and targeted testing take place.

The British government also added four more countries – Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia – to the country’s tourism red list from Sunday.

Six others – Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – were added on Friday. That means anyone allowed to come from those destinations will have to quarantine.

Many countries have imposed restrictive measures on various South African countries in the past few days, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, to in response to warnings about the potential for transmission of the new variant – against the advice of the World Health Organization.

Despite the flight ban, there are concerns that this variant has been widespread around the world. Outside the UK, cases have been reported in travelers in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong.

Germany also said it suspected three positive cases while Italy was investigating a positive case recently returned from southern Africa.

Dutch authorities are also checking whether 61 people arriving on two flights from South Africa with COVID-19 are omicron variants. And Israel says it is tracing 800 recent return travelers from South African countries.

The rapid spread of this variant among young people in South Africa has alarmed health experts, although there is no immediate indication whether the variant is causing more severe illness.

Several pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, said they had plans to adapt their vaccines due to the presence of omicrons. Pfizer and partner BioNTech say they hope to be able to tailor their vaccine in about 100 days.

Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group that developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective in preventing serious illness from the omicron variant. note that most mutations occur in regions similar to those in other variants.

He told the BBC: “At least from a speculative point of view, we have some optimism that the vaccine will still work against a new variant of the deadly disease but we really need to wait.” weeks for that to be confirmed.

Some experts say the appearance of this variant illustrates how rich countries hoarding vaccines risk prolonging the pandemic.

Less than 6% of people in Africa are fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of healthcare workers and vulnerable people are still not receiving a single dose.

Those conditions can speed up the spread of the virus, creating more opportunities for the virus to develop into a dangerous variant.

Professor Peter Openshaw said: “One of the main factors leading to the emergence of possible variants is low vaccination rates in parts of the world and WHO warns that none of us are safe. until we are all safe and in need of attention. of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.


Geir Moulson of Berlin, Mike Corder of The Hague, Netherlands, Colleen Barry of Milan, and Fares Akram from Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.


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