ROME — Countries on Saturday raced to gauge how far the newly detected omicron variant had spread, introducing travel bans and restrictions amid concerns that a potentially more transmissible form of the coronavirus could bring a surge in new cases.
Health experts around the world continued Saturday to map the spread of the variant — first detected by scientists in South Africa and now with cases confirmed in Asia and Europe, including at least two in Britain.
Such a scenario reflects what has long been one of the most feared — and anticipated — risks of gaping vaccine inequities: that a variant emerges in an area with low vaccine rates and then causes havoc in an interconnected world.
Scientists and other experts caution that many crucial aspects about the omicron variant remain unknown, including whether it can evade vaccines or results in a more severe form of the disease. But they say the recent alarm — including new travel restrictions and diving stock markets — should serve as a reminder of the world’s vulnerabilities as long as richer countries have wide vaccine access and poorer ones do not.
In an opinion piece in the Guardian, former British prime minister Gordon Brown — now an ambassador with the World Health Organization — criticized the developed world for hoarding vaccines and for failing to deliver the donated doses it had promised.
“Despite the repeated warnings of health leaders, our failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us,” Brown wrote.
The Geneva-based WHO has led a program to help distribute vaccines to nations in need, but major challenges remain in transporting the vaccines and having them reach remote areas.
Vaccine makers say they are racing to understand how well their vaccines can counter omicron. Findings should emerge within two weeks, said the maker of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
Omicron ‘quite different’
As part of the response Saturday, a new round of countries rushed to cut off or restrict travel to the southern region of Africa.
Australia, Japan and Britain are among the latest nations to either halt flights to the region or announce mandatory quarantines and screenings. Thailand said it would bar entry from the same eight countries — Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa — that the United States had targeted with restrictions a day earlier.
“It is quite different to previous variants we have been watching,” Australia’s chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, said. He called his government’s approach “proportionate to the risk.”
South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Ministry, however, urged countries to reconsider travel bans, pointing out the damage caused to families and the travel and tourism industries.
The bans are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” the ministry said in a statement. “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished.”
For now, omicron — designated Friday by the WHO as a variant of concern — is surging in South Africa’s populous Gauteng province around Johannesburg, where it is outpacing the delta variant. In that province, the share of swabs that tested positive for the coronavirus spiked from 3.6 percent Wednesday to 9.1 percent Friday. The country is bracing for the possibility that public health systems could become overwhelmed.
“I haven’t been one to panic about new variants, but this one looks like it might be the perfect storm,” said Michael Worobey, an expert on viral epidemics at the University of Arizona.
For months, delta has been the world’s predominant variant, and even delta is far more infectious than earlier versions of the coronavirus.
Omicron’s discovery adds dread in a world still struggling with delta.
Europe is facing another wave of cases, with deaths rising as well, sending some countries back into lockdowns. A handful of European Union nations have increasingly set up barriers for the unvaccinated, barring them from restaurants and even workplaces.
“Please get vaccinated as soon as possible, if not done yet,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Friday, adding that Europe was taking the new variant “very seriously.”
Earlier in the pandemic, when other variants were discovered — including delta — countries also responded with travel bans.
But the pandemic has shown that travel bans often fail to keep highly infectious variants out. Variants often arrive in a country before a ban is announced, and even then can spread via returning citizens and travelers entering via third countries. The WHO has cautioned against such travel restrictions, saying countries should instead take a “risk-based and scientific approach.”
The WHO said the first confirmed omicron infection came from a specimen collected Nov. 9. As a result, the travel measures have probably come too late to stop the international spread, said Jeffrey V. Lazarus, a health systems and policy professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health.
“Travel restrictions give a false sense of security,” he said, adding that it would be wiser to include strong safeguards for those who fly.
Europe’s center for disease control said Friday that the likelihood that omicron would spread across Europe was “high.” It labeled the variant, which is characterized by 30 changes in the spike protein, as the “most divergent” that has been detected in significant numbers so far.
Omicron cases have already been detected in Israel, Belgium, Britain and Hong Kong, among other places.
Omicron was first detected in a part of the world where vaccination rates lag well behind the global average, largely because of scant availability, even as the United States and other wealthy countries have moved on to booster shots.
Among the eight countries that have been targeted with travel restrictions, none has vaccinated even one-third of its population — and in Malawi, the immunization rate is in the single digits, according to Our World in Data.
Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said on Twitter that the failure to help vaccinate southern Africa “left us all exposed to risk.”
“Omicron is an urgent reminder of why we need to do even more to vaccinate the world,” she said.
But as vaccine deliveries to poorer parts of the world pick up pace, countries are also running into issues with vaccine hesitancy. The South African Medical Research Council has blamed low vaccination rates in the country on factors such as complacency, fear of needles and a lack of understanding about how vaccines work.
Glenda Gray, who heads the South African Medical Research Council, pushed back against accusations from some business groups that the scientists should have waited until more was known about the variant before going public.
“When you discover a new variant of concern or discover something that can have an impact on transmissions, it behooves you to alert the country,” she told News24. “The scientists were doing their job. We don’t know how this new variant will impact us or on vaccine efficacy. If this alert makes people vaccinate, that’s a good thing,” she added.
She said banning international travel was not an effective way of stopping the spread of new variants.
“I think that it’s hard to contain variants‚ we saw with the delta variant. By the time people recognized that a variant is present in the country it has probably already moved. I’m not convinced that restrictions on travel help. It didn’t help us with delta, and I’m not sure it will help with this. It’s always sad when people impose restrictions because, at that stage, the horse has bolted.”
Wroughton reported from Cape Town, South Africa. Joel Achenbach in Washington and Sammy Westfall in New York contributed to this report.