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Omicron travel bans useless

Republika

GENEVA – The World Health Organization has warned that blanket travel bans will not prevent the spread of Omicron, as more countries rushed to impose curbs and the first cases of the new Covid strain were detected in Latin America.


In the week since the new virus strain was detected and reported by South Africa, dozens of countries around the world have responded with travel restrictions — most targeting southern African nations.


But the World Health Organization said on Tuesday that “blanket” travel bans risked doing more harm than good, just as Canada expanded its restrictions.


In a travel advisory, the WHO warned the bans could ultimately dissuade countries from sharing data about the evolving virus and “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.”


But it did advise that unvaccinated people vulnerable to Covid-19, including over-60s, should avoid travel to areas with community transmission of the virus.


WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was understandable for countries to seek to protect their citizens “against a variant we don’t yet fully understand”.


But he called for the global response to be “calm, coordinated and coherent”, urging nations to “take rational, proportional risk-reduction measures”.


Evidence-informed


In an attempt to stave off hasty global border restrictions, the WHO called on countries to apply “an evidence-informed and risk-based approach” to travel measures.


More than 50 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying import of Omicron as of Nov. 28, the WHO added.


However, US President Joe Biden said the travel bans on just the southern African nations would stay in place, without referencing the other places where Omicron has been detected.


Asked how long travel restrictions that took effect Monday on South Africa and seven other southern African countries would remain, Biden said it “kind of depends”.


“We’re going to learn a lot more in the next couple weeks about the lethality of this virus, about how much it spreads, what we have to control it, etcetera,” he told reporters.


In Asia, governments continued Wednesday to expand restrictions, including with Indonesia adding Hong Kong to its travel ban list alongside various African nations.


Hong Kong also added three more countries – Japan, Portugal and Sweden — to its highest travel restriction category after Omicron cases were discovered in those nations.


Japan, which had already shut its borders to all newly entering foreigners, said it would expand its ban to foreigners with resident status from 10 African countries including South Africa.


South Korean Interior and Safety Minister Jeon Hae-cheol called for tighter virus prevention measures to head off Omicron, after suspected cases entered from Nigeria.


Australia was bracing for more Omicron cases after at least two people visited several locations in its biggest city while likely infectious.


Fight not over


While much is still unknown about the Omicron variant — it could take weeks to determine whether and to what extent it is vaccine-resistant — it has highlighted that the global fight against Covid-19 is far from over.


Omicron has emerged as much of the northern hemisphere was already bracing for a new winter wave of the pandemic — leaving even nations with high vaccination rates struggling to contain rising infection numbers and prevent health services from being overwhelmed.


Global health officials have since sought to offer reassurances and reiterated calls for people to get vaccinated.


“Even if the new variant becomes more widespread, the vaccines we have will continue to provide protection,” European Medicines Agency executive director Emer Cooke said.


Echoing remarks by vaccine maker BioNTech and scientists, Cooke said laboratory analyses should indicate over the next two weeks whether the blood of vaccinated people has sufficient antibodies to neutralize the new variant.


BioNTech’s CEO said the vaccine it makes in a partneship with Pfizer would likely offer strong protection against severe disease from Omicron.


First reported in southern Africa, Omicron has triggered global alarm, led to travel bans, and highlighted the disparity between massive vaccination pushes in rich nations and sparse inoculation in the developing world
– Reports from AFP/Reuters


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