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New COVID variant of ‘Concern’ drives travel ban in US

26 Nov. 2021 – The World Health Organization on Friday classified a new COVID-19 variant of South Africa as a “variant of concern”, meaning it could be more contagious, cause worse diseases and increase the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments.

On Friday, the WHO convened an independent group of experts to assess the new variant based on the rapid increase in COVID-19 infections this week in South Africa. Scientifically known as B.1.1.529, the variant was called Omicron.

“Omicron has certain properties that are going on. This variant has a large number of mutations, and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics, ”Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical director on the coronavirus pandemic, said in a video statement.

“Preliminary evidence indicates an increased risk of re-infection with this variant, compared to other [variants of concern], ”The WHO said in a statement. “It seems that the number of cases of this variant is increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.”

In response, the White House announced new travel restrictions on flights from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Foreign nationals of those countries will be barred from entering the United States. .

“These new restrictions will take effect on November 29,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what science and my medical team advise. ”

The US has not yet detected any cases of the new variant, Anthony Fauci, managing director, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN.

“At the moment we are getting the material with our South African colleagues to arrive at a situation where you can actually test it directly,” said Fauci. “So, at the moment, you’re talking about … a red flag that it could be a problem – but we do not know.”

Scientists in South Africa started detecting the variant this week after a jump in COVID-19 cases and reported the variant to the WHO on Wednesday. The first known confirmed infection was from a sample collected on November 9, the WHO said.

Several laboratories have found that one widely used test can be a reliable way to detect the new variant. The WHO’s virus evolution advisory group has launched “a number of studies” to evaluate Omicron and will announce new findings as needed, Van Kerkhove said on Friday.

Based on the evidence so far, the WHO has advised countries to improve their surveillance and genomic sequencing efforts to better understand the variant. The WHO also requested that countries submit genomic sequences to public databases, such as GISAID. On Friday, 66 series of the B.1.1.529 variant were reported to GISAID, including 58 in South Africa, six in Botswana and two in Hong Kong.

The WHO also asked countries to conduct field studies and laboratory analyzes on the severity of the variant, as well as immune responses, neutralization of antibodies and effectiveness of public health and social measures.

“Individuals are reminded to take measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19, including proven public health and social measures such as wearing appropriate masks, hand hygiene, physical distance, improving indoor ventilation, avoiding overcrowded spaces. and to be vaccinated, ”the WHO said.

Biden called on other nations to increase vaccine donations to poorer nations.

“The news about this new variant should be clearer than ever why it is so. pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations, ”Biden said. “The United States has already donated more vaccines to other countries than any other country combined. It is time for other countries to adapt to America’s speed and generosity. “

Israel has imposed a travel ban covering most of Africa after its first case was discovered in someone who had recently traveled from Malawi. A growing list of countries that have stopped or restricted flights, including Austria, Bahrain, Belgium, Croatia, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore, The New York Times reported.

“We are currently on the brink of an emergency,” said Naftali Bennett, Israel’s prime minister. in a statement.

“I ask everyone to be prepared and to join in the work all day long,” he said.

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