ROME – In a painfully familiar cycle of tracking first cases, pointing fingers and banning travel, countries around the world responded to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus on Monday in the patchy way that has defined the pandemic response all along — and stumbled.
While fear and resignation gripped much of the world, the World Health Organization warned that the risk of the heavily mutated variant was “very high.” But again operating in a vacuum of evidence, governments took approaches that differed between continents, between neighboring countries and even between cities within those countries.
Little is known about Omicron other than the sheer number of mutations; it will be at least weeks before scientists can say with confidence whether it is more contagious — early data suggests it does — whether it causes more serious illness and how it responds to vaccines.
In China, which was increasingly the only one to shield itself as it tried to eradicate the virus, a Communist Party-controlled newspaper beamed at democracies that are now following as Japan, South Korea, Australia and other countries flirt with a returned to normalcy and closed their borders to the world. The West, it said, had hoarded vaccines at the expense of poorer regions, and was now paying a price for its selfishness.
In the United States, federal officials on Monday called on vaccinated people to get booster shots. President Biden tried to reassure Americans by saying that the new variant is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic” and that his administration is already working with vaccine manufacturers to modify vaccines should the need arise.
“We’re throwing everything we have at this virus and following it from every angle,” the president said during a White House appearance.
In southern Africa, where scientists first identified Omicron amid a largely unvaccinated population, leaders deplored the travel bans as disastrous and counterproductive to detecting the virus, saying they could discourage transparency about outbreaks. African officials also noted that due to the uneven distribution of vaccines, the continent is facing this latest variant with little to no protection.
But as vaccine deliveries to Africa become more reliable, some states looked to a vaccine mandate to contain the spread of the coronavirus. On Sunday, the Ghanaian government announced that government officials, health professionals and staff and students in most schools must be vaccinated by January 22.
Europe, which has acted unusually by banning travel from southern Africa, is speeding up booster shots in the hopes they will work against Omicron, and is adapting or rethinking a hodgepodge of social distancing measures, even in restriction-resistant countries like Britain .
“The lack of a consistent and coherent global approach has led to a fragmented and disjointed response, leading to misunderstanding, misinformation and mistrust,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization.
The WHO convened a three-day special session to discuss a treaty that would ensure rapid exchange of data and technology and equal access to vaccines. The European Union has pushed for the agreement to become legally binding, but the United States has resisted.
The proposal itself underscored that two years after a devastating pandemic that has killed millions, devastated national economies and robbed many of the world’s children of nearly two years of formative experiences, there is still no global plan for getting out.
As the largely vaccinated West clings to early reports that Omicron may cause milder illnesses and may be susceptible to vaccines, entire parts of Africa remain essentially unvaccinated. Some countries, such as South Africa, have adequate doses but struggle to distribute them. Others lack freezers, logistics infrastructure and medical personnel to vaccinate their populations.
That has given the virus enough time and bodies to multiply and mutate.
The travel bans are meant to save time as scientists determine whether the mutations in the new variant will allow evasion of existing vaccines. But they also seemed to suggest that core lessons from the early phase of the pandemic need to be re-learned: An infection discovered somewhere is likely to be everywhere — or may be soon enough — and a single case detected means there’s still a lot left. more unnoticed.
On Monday, Portugal reported 13 Omicron cases – all linked to a single football team – and Scotland reported six, while the number in South Africa continued to rise.
Experts warned that the variant will reach every part of the world, if it isn’t already.
The leaders of the world’s top powers urged… that they understood this, but their commitments also had a strong touch of geopolitics.
China’s President Xi Jinping offered Africa a billion doses of Covid vaccine, on top of the nearly 200 million Beijing has already shipped to the continent, during a speech at a conference in Senegal via video link.
The Global Times, a Chinese gossip magazine controlled by the Communist Party, boasted of China’s success in combating virus transmission and said the West is now paying the price for its selfish policies. “Western countries control most of the resources needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic,” it read. “But they have failed to contain the spread of the virus and have increasingly exposed developing countries to the virus.”
Mr Biden said the United States has sent more free vaccines abroad than all other countries in the world combined. “Now we need the rest of the world to act as well,” he said.
European health ministers seemed to agree.
“The identification of the Omicron variant in the southern part of Africa confirms the urgency to do more to vaccinate the populations of the most vulnerable countries,” said Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza at a virtual meeting of ministers of Public health representing seven of the world’s representatives. richest major democracies.
He called on those countries to help administer vaccines. “It’s not enough to donate doses,” said Mr. Speranza.
Within days of seeing evidence of a new variant, South African scientists who run the continent’s most advanced genomic sequencing labs had identified it. They made their findings public on Wednesday.
After other parts of the world, including the United States and the European Union, responded with travel bans on southern Africa, South African officials protested that their country was being punished for its speed and transparency.
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Reactions to the coronavirus are as varied as the countries it threatens.
Israel, the first country to block travel in response to Omicron, gave its intelligence agency temporary permission to check the phone records of people with confirmed cases of the variant.
In Italy, which has kept infections low with some of the strictest regulations in Europe, the country’s mayoral conference urged the government to impose a national mandate for outdoor masks from December 6 to January 15, while crowds gather to shop and party. Christmas.
Even Britain, which has taken a lax approach to wearing masks and other social distancing measures,
has stepped up its response to Omicron. The country introduced new mask mandates and new travel restrictions, and appeared to soften its opposition to vaccine passports and mandating masks in restaurants. And the UK’s vaccine advisory board announced on Monday that it is suggesting an expansion of the country’s booster programme.
In Germany, already hard hit by the latest wave of pandemic, the fear of the Omicron variant was palpable.
“It feels different from the first bits of information we got about the Delta variant,” said Christian Drosten, a prominent German virologist, who describes himself as “quite concerned.”
On Monday, the German government announced that Angela Merkel, the state governors and Olaf Scholz, who will succeed Ms Merkel as chancellor next week, had postponed a scheduled meeting on possible lockdown measures by nine days.
“We have to buy time,” Karl Lauterbach, a MP and public health expert who is considered a strong candidate to become the new health minister of the new German government, said on Twitter. “Nothing is worse than a new variant in an ongoing wave.”
Pauline Londeix, a prominent French advocate for wider access to medicines and transparent drug policies, told France Inter Radio on Monday that variants would continue to appear unless wealthier countries shared more vaccines. “We need a much more systemic approach,” she said.
The European Commission on Monday urged member states not to impose additional travel restrictions on their citizens.
Unlike Europe’s patchwork of regulations, China has had a more consistent and clearer policy: it has essentially been shut down as it pursues a “zero Covid” strategy.
China has steadfastly erected a high wall against visitors from the rest of the world. Foreign residents and visa holders are only allowed in under limited circumstances, leading to concerns among some in the business world that Covid restrictions were leaving the country increasingly isolated.
Visitors must be subject to a two-week quarantine upon arrival and then face potential restrictions on their freedom of movement. Movements are tracked through smartphone monitoring apps, which display color codes that can indicate whether a person has traveled from or through an area with recent infections, providing instructions to stay in one place.
In other parts of Asia, people are less focused on eradicating the virus than on survival.
“This news is terrifying,” said Gurinder Singh, 57, in New Delhi, who was concerned that his store would go under. “If this virus spreads in India, the government will close the country again and we will have to beg.”
Reporting contributed by Declan Walsh from Nairobi, Patrick Kingsley from Jerusalem, Carlos Tejada from Seoul, Sameer Yasir from Srinagar, India, Lynsey Chutel from South Africa, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Elian Peltier and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels, Megan Special from London, Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin, Emma Bubola from Rome and Nick Cumming Bruce from Geneva.