The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Africa on Sunday urged countries to follow the science rather than imposing flight bans in a bid to contain the new Omicron coronavirus variant. Dutch health authorities said on Sunday they had found at least 13 cases of the Omicron strain among travelers from South Africa, while in France, Health Minister Olivier Véran said the variant was likely already circulating in the country.
The (WHO) has declared Omicron a “variant of concern” (VOC). In its statement released Friday, the WHO said, “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs.”
The UN health agency said it could take several weeks to understand the new variant and has cautioned against travel curbs while scientific evidence remains scant.
But with the variant being detected in several other countries, governments have been imposing varying levels of travel restrictions.
Read FRANCE 24’s coverage of the day’s events.
10.25pm Paris time
8 possible cases of Omicron variant in France
France’s Health Ministry said on Sunday it had detected eight possible cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant across the country after the government announced it would tighten restrictions to contain its spread.
“They are being considered as possibly being contaminated with the Omicron variant having been to southern Africa in the last 14 days,” the Health Ministry said in a statement. It said further tests were being carried out to fully confirm it was Omicron, but the people and those they had been in contact with were now in isolation.
Health Minister Olivier Veran had earlier told reporters that any contact that a person at risk of a possible case or a confirmed case of the Omicron variant, even vaccinated, would now have to isolate. Those people should be considered “high risk” and quarantined.
Until now, contact cases of an infected person had to be isolated only when they were not fully vaccinated or when they had weak immune systems.
France has also suspended all flights from southern Africa until at least Dec. 1 and stepped up protocols for people coming from its nearby overseas territories of La Reunion and Mayotte, the ministry said.
France is in the midst of a fifth wave of the virus. It recorded more than 31,600 positive COVID-19 cases on Sunday having seen a sharp rise in the number of patients in intensive care the previous day.
8.10pm Paris time
South Africa calls for countries to ‘urgently’ reverse travel bans
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday called on countries to “urgently” reverse “scientifically unjustified” travel bans linked to the discovery of the new highly-mutated coronavirus variant Omicron.
“We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions,” he said in his first address to the nation following last week’s detection of the new variant.
Dozens of countries have blacklisted South Africa and its neighbours since South African scientists flagged Omicron last week.
“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science,” Ramaphosa said.
“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic,” he added.
8.05pm Paris time
WHO urges countries not to shut borders
The head of the World Health Organization in Africa on Sunday urged countries to follow the science rather than imposing flight bans in a bid to contain the new Omicron coronavirus variant.
“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said WHO regional director general Matshidiso Moeti.
“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” the WHO said in a statement.
“If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based,” the UN body said.
7.45pm Paris time
UK to convene urgent meeting of G7 health ministers
The UK government announced the UK will convene an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers on November 29 to discuss developments with regard to the emergence of the new Omicron variant.
“Under the UK presidency an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers will also be convened on Monday 29 November to discuss the developments on Omicron,” said Britain’s health ministry.
7pm Paris time
Malawi blasts ‘Afrophobic’ virus travel bans
Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera on Sunday accused Western countries of “Afrophobia” for shutting their borders to his and other neighbouring nations after South Africa flagged a new coronavirus variant last week.
Dozens of countries have barred flights from southern Africa in a bid to keep the variant, named Omicron, off their shores.
Chakwera is currently chairing the 16-nation Southern African Development Community (SADC) which has seen most of its members blacklisted, sparking outrage.
“We are all concerned about the new Covid variant and owe South Africa’s scientists our thanks for identifying it before anyone else did,” Chakwera posted on his Facebook page.
“But the unilateral travel bans now imposed on SADC countries by the UK, EU, US, Australia, and others are uncalled for. Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia,” he said.
4.45pm Paris time
Morocco bans all inbound flights for two weeks over new variant
Morocco will ban all inbound international passenger flights for two weeks starting November 29 due to concerns over the Omicron Covid-19 variant, the Moroccan government said in a statement on Sunday.
4.35pm Paris time
US must do ‘anything and everything’ to stop variant: Fauci
Americans should be prepared to fight the spread of the new Covid-19 variant Omicron, but it is too soon to say what actions are needed, including possible mandates or lockdowns, top US infectious disease official Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Sunday.
The United States must do “anything and everything”, Fauci told ABC News.
2.50pm Paris time
Denmarks registers its first two cases of Omicron variant as Germany confirms its third
Denmark has registered two cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant in travelers from South Africa, the country’s infectious disease authority said in a statement on Sunday.
“This was to be expected, and our strategy is therefore to continue intensive monitoring of the infection in the country,” Henrik Ullum, director of the State Serum Institute, said.
The two persons, traveling to Denmark by plane, have been put in isolation and authorities are tracing any close contacts.
Germany said on Sunday it had detected a total of three cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant after a suspected infection in the western state of Hesse was confirmed.
“The sequencing has confirmed the result – the suspected case which was made public yesterday morning is the Omicron variant,” Kai Klose, Social Affairs Minister in the state of Hesse tweeted.
1.30pm Paris time
Netherlands finds 13 new variant cases among South Africa passengers
Dutch health authorities said on Sunday they had found at least 13 cases of the Omicron strain among 61 quarantined passengers who tested positive for coronavirus after arriving from South Africa.
“The Omicron variant has so far been identified in 13 of the positive tests. The investigation has not yet been completed. The new variant may be found in more test samples,” the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) said in a statement.
Dutch authorities began testing for the Omicron variant after 61 out of 600 passengers on board two flights from South Africa to Amsterdam on Friday tested positive for Covid-19.
Health Minister Hugo de Jonge made an “urgent request” to people returning from southern Africa to get tested for Covid “as soon as possible”.
“It is not unthinkable that there are more cases in the Netherlands,” De Jonge told reporters.
“Yes, we are concerned. But how much we don’t know yet.”
The minister added: “What is important now is that we keep our finger on the pulse, and keep up with the sequencing” of Covid tests to look for the new variant.
The positive cases are being kept in quarantine at a hotel near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.
10.52am Paris time
French health minister says variant likely to be circulating in France
The Omicron variant is probably already circulating in France, said French Health Minister Olivier Véran, adding that the government was tightening restrictions to contain its spread.
“There is no identification yet, but it’s a matter of hours,” Véran told reporters at a vaccination centre in Paris.
“Once the variant is circulating in England, in Italy, in Belgium, it is probable that there are already cases in circulation here. We will identify them and (…) we will slow down its spread as much as possible.”
France is in the midst of a fifth wave of the virus. It recorded more than 37,000 positive cases on Saturday and a sharp rise in the number of patients in intensive care.
The health ministry on Saturday recommended the isolation of any contact person at risk of a possible case or a confirmed case of the Omicron variant, even vaccinated, in documents sent to establishments and health professionals, AFP reported.
Those people should be considered “high risk” and quarantined, the document said.
8.55am Paris time
Saudi Arabia halts flights from additional African nations
Saudi Arabia’s ministry of interior has halted flights to and from Malawi, Zambia, Madagascar, Angola, Seychelles, Mauritius and the Comoros Islands owing to concerns related to the spread of the Omicron strain, state news agency SPA reported on Twitter.
Saudi Arabia on Friday suspended flights to and from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini.
8.15am Paris time
Maldives bans travellers from seven southern African nations
Maldives said it was barring travellers from seven African countries from Sunday over concerns about the new variant.
Travellers will not be allowed into Maldives from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho and Eswatini, the health ministry said in a statement.
Travellers who arrived from these countries over the past two days will have to undergo 14 days of quarantine.
7.33am Paris time
Australia detects first Covid Omicron infections
Health officials said they had detected the Covid Omicron strain in Australia for the first time in two passengers who were tested after flying into Sydney from southern Africa.
The eastern state of New South Wales’ health authority said it had conducted urgent genomic testing and confirmed the new strain was present in the two people who landed in Sydney on Saturday.
Both passengers came from southern Africa and arrived in Australia on a Qatar Airways flight via Doha, NSW Health said in a statement.
They tested positive for Covid shortly after arriving, leading to an urgent analysis for possible infection by the heavily mutated Omicron strain.
“The two positive cases, who were asymptomatic, are in isolation in the special health accommodation. Both people are fully vaccinated,” NSW Health said.
Another 12 passengers from southern Africa on the same flight did not test positive for Covid but had been placed in quarantine, it said.
About 260 passengers and crew on the plane have also been told to isolate, the health authority said.
The plane with the infected passengers landed on the same day that Australia announced it was banning flights from nine southern African countries including South Africa and Zimbabwe.
6.35am Paris time
Israel becomes first country to ban entry to all foreigners
Israel on Saturday said it would ban the entry of all foreigners into the country, making it the first country to shut its borders completely in response to a new and potentially more contagious coronavirus variant, and said it would usecounter-terrorism phone-tracking technology in order to contain the spread of the Omicron variant.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement that the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Officials hope that within that period there will be more information on how effective Covid-19 vaccines are against Omicron, which was first detected in South Africa and has been dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization.
“Our working hypotheses are that the variant is already in nearly every country,” Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked told N12’s “Meet the Press,” “and that the vaccine is effective, although we don’t yet know to what degree.”
Israelis entering the country, including those who are vaccinated, will be required to quarantine, Bennett said. The ban will come into effect at midnight between Sunday and Monday. A travel ban on foreigners coming from most African states was imposed on Friday.
The Shin Bet counter-terrorism agency’s phone-tracking technology will be used to locate carriers of the new variant in order to curb its transmission to others, Bennett said.
Used on and off since March 2020, the surveillance technology matched virus carriers’ locations against other mobile phones nearby to determine with whom they had come into contact.
Israel’s Supreme Court this year limited the scope of its use after civil rights groups mounted challenges over privacy concerns.
Israel has so far confirmed one case of Omicron, with seven suspected cases. The Health Ministry has not said whether the confirmed case was vaccinated. Three of the seven suspected cases were fully vaccinated, the ministry said on Saturday, and three had not returned from travel abroad recently.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)