The Omicron variant has been detected in 38 countries, but no deaths have yet been reported, the WHO said on Friday, as authorities around the world rushed to stem the spread of the heavily mutated Covid-19 strain amid warnings that it could hurt the global economic recovery.
The United States and Australia have become the latest countries to confirm locally transmitted cases of the variant, as Omicron infections have pushed the total number of cases in South Africa to more than three million.
The World Health Organization has warned that it could take weeks to determine how infectious the variant is, if it causes more serious illness, and how effective treatments and vaccines are against it.
“We are going to get the answers everyone needs,” WHO Emergency Director Michael Ryan said.
The WHO said on Friday it still had not seen any reports of Omicron-related deaths, but the spread of the new variant has led to warnings it could cause more than half of Covid cases in Europe over the next few months.
The new variant could also slow the global economic recovery, just as the Delta strain did, International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva said on Friday.
“Even before the arrival of this new variant, we were concerned that the recovery, although it is continuing, may lose some of its momentum,” she said.
“A new variant that can spread very quickly can shake confidence.”
A preliminary study by researchers in South Africa, where the variant was first reported on November 24, suggests that it is three times more likely to cause re-infections than either Delta or Beta strains.
The emergence of Omicron was the “ultimate proof” of the danger of uneven global vaccination rates, said Francesca Rocca, director of the Red Cross.
South African doctors said there has been a spike in children under five admitted to hospital since Omicron’s emergence, but stressed that it was too early to know if young people children were particularly susceptible.
“The incidence among those under five is now the second highest, and only second after the incidence among those over 60,” said Wassila Jassat of the National Institute of Communicable Diseases.
In the United States, two cases involved residents with no recent history of international travel – showing that Omicron is already circulating inside the country.
“This is a case of community spread,” the Hawaii Department of Health said.
US President Joe Biden on Thursday unveiled his plans to fight Covid-19 over the winter, with new testing requirements for travelers and increased vaccination efforts.
“Kick in the nuts”
All inbound travelers will need to test negative within one day of their flight, and rapid tests that cost $ 25 will be covered by insurance and distributed free to the uninsured.
Australia announced on Friday that three students in Sydney had tested positive for the variant, despite a ban on non-nationals from entering the country and restrictions on flights from southern Africa, several countries were rushing to limit travel from the area last week.
“It’s a hell of a nutshell,” said Sabine Stam, who runs a South African travel agency and whose clients are asking for refunds. “Everyone is too afraid to set a new travel date,” she said.
In Norway, officials said at least 13 people who contracted Covid-19 after an office Christmas party in Oslo last week had the Omicron variant – although they have so far only had mild symptoms, Tine Ravlo, the city’s health officer, told AFP.
But the government introduced restrictions in greater Oslo after cluster fears surfaced.
Malaysia also reported a first infection with Omicron in a foreign student arriving from South Africa on November 19 on Friday. Sri Lanka has also announced its first case, a returning citizen from South Africa.
Russia’s federal statistics agency Rosstat, meanwhile, said nearly 75,000 people died from the coronavirus in the country in October, making it the deadliest month in the pandemic.
The new variant poses a major challenge in ending the pandemic.
The increase in Delta cases had already forced European governments to reintroduce mandatory mask wearing, social distancing, curfews or closures, leaving businesses fearing another bleak Christmas.
Belgian authorities announced on Friday that primary schools would close a week earlier for the Christmas holidays.
German regional leaders have agreed to new measures, including banning fireworks on New Year’s Eve celebrations, to discourage large gatherings.
Ireland has said it will close nightclubs and reintroduce social distancing in certain settings over Christmas and New Years.
In the UK, ministers have expressed differing views, not only on the idea of hosting parties, but also on what kind of behavior is deemed acceptable.
“For what it’s worth, I don’t think there should be a lot of smooching under the mistletoe,” Minister Therese Coffey said.
(Except for the title, this story was not edited by NDTV staff and is posted from a syndicated feed.)