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World Acts to Contain New COVID Variant11/27 08:43

   With each passing hour, new restrictions were being slapped on travel from 
countries in southern Africa as the world scurried Saturday to contain the new 
omicron variant of the coronavirus that has the potential to be more resistant 
to the protection offered by vaccines.

   THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) -- With each passing hour, new restrictions were 
being slapped on travel from countries in southern Africa as the world scurried 
Saturday to contain the new omicron variant of the coronavirus that has the 
potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines.

   A host of countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada Iran, Japan, 
Thailand and the United States, joined others, including the European Union and 
the U.K. in impose restrictions on southern African countries in response to 
warnings over the transmissability of the new variant -- against the advice of 
the World Health Organization. Pharmaceutical companies expressed optimism that 
they could finesse their vaccines to deal with the new variant though that 
would clearly take some time.

   Despite the banning of flights, there are mounting concerns that the variant 
has already been widely seeded around the world. Cases have been reported in 
travelers in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong.

   On Saturday, Britain confirmed two linked cases of the new omicron variant 
while Germany indicated it has a probable case. Dutch authorities are also 
checking for the new variant after 61 passengers on two flights from South 
Africa tested positive for COVID-19.

   The global health body has named the new variant omicron, labeling it a 
variant of concern because of its high number of mutations and some early 
evidence that it carries a higher degree of infection than other variants. That 
means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching 
it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective 
against it.

   With so much uncertainty about the omicron variant and scientists unlikely 
to flesh out their findings for a few weeks, countries around the world have 
been taking a safety-first approach, in the knowledge that previous outbreaks 
of the pandemic have been partly fueled by lax border policies.

   "It seems to spread rapidly," U.S. President Joe Biden said Friday of the 
new variant, only a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving 
gatherings for millions of American families and the sense that normal life was 
coming back at least for the vaccinated. In announcing new travel restrictions, 
he told reporters, "I've decided that we're going to be cautious."

   Nearly two years on since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more 
than 5 million lives around the world, countries are on high alert.

   Dutch authorities have isolated 61 people who tested positive for COVID-19 
on arrival in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday. They 
are carrying out further investigations to see if any of the travelers have the 
omicron variant.

   The planes arrived in the Netherlands from Johannesburg and Cape Town 
shortly after the Dutch government imposed a ban on flights from southern 
African nations.

   The 539 travelers who tested negative were allowed to return home or 
continue their journeys to other countries. Under government regulations, those 
who live in the Netherlands and are allowed to return home must self-isolate 
for at least five days.

   In the U.K., Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that two people have 
tested positive with the omicron variant in the southeastern town of Chelmsford 
and in the central county of Nottinghamshire. He said the cases were linked and 
related to travel from southern Africa.

   Meanwhile, a German official said that there's a "very high probability" 
that the omicron variant has already arrived in the country.

   Kai Klose, the health minister for Hesse state, which includes Frankfurt, 
said in a tweet that "several mutations typical of omicron" were found Friday 
night in a traveler returning from South Africa, who was isolated at home. 
Sequencing of the test had yet to be completed.

   The variant's swift spread among young people in South Africa has alarmed 
health professionals even though there was no immediate indication whether the 
variant causes more severe disease. In just two weeks, omicron has turned a 
period of low transmission in the country into one of rapid growth.

   A number of pharmaceutical firms, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax 
and Pfizer, said they have plans in place to adapt their vaccines in light of 
the emergence of omicron. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said they expect to 
be able to tweak their vaccine in around 100 days.

   Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group which 
developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing 
vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the omicron 

   He said most of the mutations appear to be in similar regions as those in 
other variants.

   "That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants the 
vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we've moved through 
alpha, beta, gamma and delta," he told BBC radio. "At least from a speculative 
point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against 
a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to 
have that confirmed."

   He added that it is "extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a 
vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen."

   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 immunized against 
COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to 
receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, 
offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.

   "One of the key factors to emergence of variants may well be low vaccination 
rates in parts of the world, and the WHO warning that none of us is safe until 
all of us are safe and should heeded," said Peter Openshaw, a professor of 
experimental medicine at Imperial College London.

   "Global vaccine rollout is vital," he added.

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