The British government has announced more restrictive face covering measures and the imposition of tests on international travelers after the announcement of two cases linked to the new, potentially more contagious variant of COVID-19.
According to Prime Minister Boris Johnson, these “targeted and preventive” measures are necessary to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.
“It is a responsible course of action to follow in order to slow down the spread of the new variant and to maximize our defenses,” he said at a press conference.
Mr Johnson has indicated that anyone who travels to England will have to undergo a PCR test two days after arriving in the country. Each traveler will have to self-isolate while waiting to provide a negative test result. He added that close contacts of those who test positive for the new variant will have to isolate themselves for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.
Face coverings are once again compulsory in shops and public transport. Mr Johnson said the independent group of scientists advising the government asked him to speed up the vaccination campaign, including expanding the program for booster doses or raising the ages of children who can receive a second dose.
“Starting today, we will intensify the recall campaign,” he said.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has confirmed that two people have tested positive in Chelmsford, in the south of England, and Nottingham, in the center of the country. Mr Javid said both cases were linked to a trip to southern Africa.
The two cases are in isolation at home as authorities attempt to trace their contacts. Targeted tests will be carried out. Four more countries will be added to travel restrictions as of Sunday: travelers from Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia will have to go into quarantine. The secretary reiterated the importance of a booster dose.
“It really reminds us that the pandemic is far from over,” Javid said. If we need to take further action, we will. “
In Germany too
A German official also said on Saturday that there was a “very high probability” that the Omicron variant has already arrived in the country.
Kai Klose, the Minister of Health for the State of Hesse, who includes Frankfurt, said on Twitter that “several mutations typical of Omicron” were detected on Friday evening in a returning traveler from South Africa, who has been isolated at home. The sequencing of the test was not yet complete.
The rapid spread of the variant among young people in South Africa alarmed healthcare professionals even though there was no immediate indication whether the variant is causing more serious illness. In just two weeks, Omicron turned a period of low virus transmission in the country into a period of rapid growth.
Cases have been reported in travelers to Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, and Germany also has a probable case. Dutch authorities are researching the new variant after 61 passengers on two flights from South Africa tested positive for COVID-19.
In the past few hours, a slew of countries, including Canada, Australia, Brazil, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, have emulated the European Union and the United Kingdom to impose restrictions to southern African countries.
Despite warnings about the transmissibility of the new variant, the World Health Organization (WHO) has advised against any restriction measures.
She considers this new variant, which she named Omicron, to be of concern because of its high number of mutations and some early evidence that shows that it has a higher degree of infection than the other variants. This means that people who have contracted COVID-19 and have recovered could catch it again. It could be weeks before we know if the current vaccines are less effective against him.
A number of pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, said they have plans in place to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of Omicron.
Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group that developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective in preventing serious illnesses caused by the Omicron variant.
He said most of the mutations appear to be in regions similar to other variants.
“This tells you that despite these mutations that exist in other variants, vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we move through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, a he told BBC radio. At least from a speculative point of view, we have some optimism that the vaccine should still protect against some serious disease form of the new variant, but we really have to wait several weeks for that to be confirmed. “
Some experts have said the emergence of the variant illustrates how the build-up of vaccines in wealthy countries threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Less than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immune to COVID-19, and millions of healthcare workers and vulnerable people have yet to receive a single dose. These conditions can accelerate the spread of the virus, providing more possibilities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.