By Tony O’Riley-
The discovery of a new coronavirus variant could make nonesense of vaccines, after experts raced to halt air travel.
A World Health Organisation (WHO) panel named the variant Omicron and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the Delta variant.
Anthony Vacci said it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, “we don’t know that for sure right now”, he said.
The WHO suggested the variant could pose greater risks than Delta, which is the world’s most prevalent variant and has fuelled relentless waves of infection on every continent.
The United States joined the European Union and several other countries in instituting travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa.
The White House said the U.S will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning on Monday.
It did not give details except to say the restrictions will not apply to returning US citizens or permanent residents, who will continue to be required to test negative before their travel.
Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant that originated in southern Africa was better understood.
“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs.
There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease.
Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrying, it was unclear if the new variant would pose a significant public health threat.
The 27-nation European Union imposed a temporary ban on air travel from southern Africa, and stocks tumbled in Asia, Europe and the United States.
The price of oil plunged nearly 12%.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German health minister Jens Spahn said.
The member nations of the EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently.
EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules”.
She insisted on extreme caution, warning that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months”.
Belgium became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant.
“It’s a suspicious variant,” health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said.
“We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”
It has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government’s top infectious disease expert.
And although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, “we don’t know that for sure right now”, he said.
Israel, one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, announced on Friday that it also detected its first case of the new variant in a traveller who returned from Malawi.
The traveller and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation.
Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were looking into the travellers’ exact vaccination status.
Some experts said the variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunised against Covid-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose.
This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point.
“This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point,” said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain’s University of Southampton.
He urged Group of 20 leaders “to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses”.
The new variant added to investor anxiety that months of progress containing Covid-19 could be reversed.
“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley, of foreign exchange broker Oanda.