Nearly two years after the first case of Covid-19 was reported in China, the world is bracing for the effects of a worrisome new variant, called Omicron, with fears vaccines won’t offer protection against the strain. Nations are banning travel from South Africa, where scientists first detected it, including Israel banning all foreign visitors.
The virus has already killed 5.217 million people and infected 261.665 million worldwide, according to Worldometers.info on Sunday. But after a spike from the Delta variant earlier this year, the situation had stabilized with a 4-percent weekly decline of deaths and 2-percent increase in cases.
Israel, after discovering one case of the variant and seven suspected ones, became the first country to ban entry of all foreigners, effective Sunday night, the first night of Hanukkah. Also, all Israelis arriving from abroad must quarantine. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the ban is expected to last for 14 days.
Flights are blocked from South Africa to the United States, Canada, European Union, Britain Japan and Australia.
In the United States, where no Omicron cases have been identified, travel will be banned from South Africa and seven neighboring counties starting Monday: Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. Canada has the same restrictions though it is allowing visitors from Malawi.
Three weeks ago, the United States had allowed foreign visitors from 30 countries, including South Africa.
“It’s already here,” NBC News medical contributor Dr. Kavita Patel said. “We know from previous variants that by the time we pick it up in Africa and the European Union, it’s already likely.”
“You don’t want to frighten the American public but when something occurs that you need to take seriously, you take it seriously and you do whatever you can to mitigate against that,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious disease expert, told NBC News.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Sunday during a visit to Riga, Latvia, that the world is in a “race against time” with the Omicron coronavirus variant.
A few days after the World Health Organization put out an alert on the new variant Wednesday, cases were detected across Europe, including in Britain, The Netherlands, Italy, Germany and Belgium. It was also found in Australia and Hong Kong.
Europe already has the most deaths and second-most cases of the continents. Lately, the situation has become dire in Eastern Europe, including Germany, Russia, Poland, Ukraine and Czech Republic. Also, Austria on Monday became the first western European nation to enter a nationwide lockdown.