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More omicron infections were reported around the world on Sunday, with 13 cases of the new coronavirus variant found in the Netherlands and two in Australia, as more countries tried to seal themselves off by imposing travel restrictions.
Dutch health authorities announced that the 13 cases of the variant were found among passengers who were on flights from South Africa that arrived in Amsterdam on Friday.
The discovery of omicron, classified as a variant of concern last week by the World Health Organization, has sparked worries around the world that it could resist vaccinations and prolong the nearly two-year COVID-19 pandemic. Scientific research has yet to confirm those concerns about the infectiousness and transmissibility of the new variant.
First discovered in South Africa, the variant has also been detected in Britain, Germany, Denmark, Italy, Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.
New Zealand announced it was restricting travel from nine southern African countries because of the threat posed by the variant, and Japan widened its border controls to include more countries from the region.
Tourist-dependent Thailand, which only recently began loosening its tight border restrictions to leisure travellers from certain countries, announced a ban of its own on visitors from eight African counties. Similar restrictions took effect in the business hub of Singapore, which is barring entry and transit to anyone with a recent history of travel to seven southern African nations.
Sri Lanka banned disembarkation of passengers arriving from six African countries due to the detection of the omicron variant, as did the Maldives, the luxury Indian Ocean resort archipelago. In addition to the similar entry ban, quarantine officials in the Philippines have been ordered to track down recent travellers from southern Africa and put them in a quarantine.
Israel banning all foreign travellers
Israel went further, barring entry to all foreign nationals, mandating quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad and red-listing travel to 50 African countries. On Sunday, it also approved use of the Shin Bet internal security agency’s controversial phone monitoring technology to perform contact tracing of individuals confirmed with the new omicron variant in Israel.
Austria has detected its first suspected case of the omicron coronavirus variant in the Tirol, authorities in the alpine region said late Saturday.
A traveller who returned from South Africa last week tested positive for COVID-19 with indications of the new variant, though confirmation requires further sequencing over the coming days, Tirol authorities said in a statement.
Under Canada’s new rules, all foreign nationals who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique are barred from entering Canada. Canadian citizens and permanent residents in those places are allowed to return home, but must get test for COVID-19 upon arrival and quarantine for 14 days.
The tighter restrictions reflect steps rapidly taken by countries around the world to limit the spread of the omicron variant just days after it was identified by researchers in South Africa. The act first, ask questions later approach reflected growing alarm about the emergence of a potentially more contagious variant in a pandemic that has killed more than five million people, upended lives and disrupted economies across the globe.
The United States is praising South Africa for sharing information about the new coronavirus variant. In a tweet on Saturday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked its government and scientists for their “professionalism and transparency.”
I spoke with South African Foreign Minister Pandor <a href=”https://twitter.com/DIRCO_ZA?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@DIRCO_ZA</a> to express our deep appreciation for the professionalism and transparency of the South African government and South Africa’s scientists in our shared fight against COVID-19.
The United States’ top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant was already in the U.S., too.
“We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility … it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” Fauci said on NBC television Saturday.
What’s happening across Canada
So far, no cases of COVID-19 involving the omicron variant have been confirmed in Canada, although health officials reported almost 2,200 new coronavirus infections on Saturday, the vast majority in Ontario and Quebec.
1/2 <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/COVID19?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#COVID19</a> key concerns 🇨🇦: nationally, daily case counts are slowly creeping up so we need to maintain a high degree of caution to avoid a rapid acceleration. Emergence of <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Omicron?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Omicron</a>, a new <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/VariantOfConcern?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#VariantOfConcern</a>, reinforces the need for caution. <a href=”https://t.co/UQTuNlUW4o”>https://t.co/UQTuNlUW4o</a>
What’s happening around the world
As of Sunday morning, more than 261.1 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus database. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.1 million.
In Asia, more than 2.48 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines had been administered on the Chinese mainland as of Saturday, according to data released Sunday by China’s National Health Commission.
The Philippines, meanwhile, will buy an additional 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, seeking to fully inoculate more than 80 per cent of its population against COVID-19 by mid-2022, a government official said on Sunday.
In the Americas, France’s minister for overseas territories will hold crisis talks on its Caribbean islands on Sunday, an official said, as the government looks to defuse tensions after more than a week of unrest stemming from its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic there.
A plan for compulsory vaccination for health workers stoked a sentiment among the majority Black population of Guadeloupe and Martinique of being excluded and marginalized from the mainland, although the same measure had already been introduced on the mainland.
The issue sparked protests and fanned longstanding grievances over living standards and the relationship with Paris. Protesters have insisted they should be allowed to make their own choices about health treatment.