Countries are scrambling to prevent the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, which the World Health Organization designated a “variant of concern” last week, triggering new travel restrictions and sending stocks tumbling. Japan, Morocco and Israel have barred entry for international travelers, while other countries, including the U.S., the U.K. and the European Union, have reimposed entry bans from nations in southern Africa, where Omicron was first detected. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa slammed the move and called for the bans to be lifted.
President Cyril Ramaphosa: “The emergence of the Omicron variant should be a wake-up call to the world that vaccine inequality cannot be allowed to continue. Until everyone is vaccinated, everyone will continue to be at risk. … Instead of prohibiting travel, the rich countries of the world need to support the efforts of developing countries — economies, that is — to access and to manufacture enough vaccine doses for their people without delay.”
Outside of South Africa, cases have been reported in Australia, Hong Kong and a growing list of European nations. It’s still unclear if the variant — which has about 50 mutations — causes more severe illness, is more transmissible or can evade immunity proffered by vaccines.
Here in the U.S., New York has already declared a state of emergency in preparation for a possible Omicron surge, though no cases have yet been reported. Meanwhile, President Biden called for a waiver on intellectual property rights for COVID vaccines ahead of a scheduled World Trade Organization ministerial meeting this week. But that meeting has since been delayed indefinitely, after Omicron led to new travel restrictions that barred many participants from reaching scheduled talks in Geneva.