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Omicron variant casts a shadow over Asia's cautious reopening

David Pierson, Victoria Kim and Alice Su, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

SINGAPORE — The air-conditioned buses lumbered out of Singapore shortly after sunrise Monday carrying travelers into Malaysia for the first time in 21 months, modestly reviving what had been one of the world’s busiest border crossings before the pandemic.

The launch of the link Monday marked another major step in Singapore’s reopening and its bid to “live with COVID-19” — but it came amid sudden and growing concerns that the Omicron variant could stall the region’s recovery.

Singapore, like most of Asia, has been far more cautious than the West when it comes to relaxing border controls and loosening social restrictions. You won’t find crowded concerts and packed sports stadiums here. It’s virtually impossible to spot anyone flouting mask requirements. The spread of a more infectious new variant would almost certainly trigger the return of measures that could cancel travel agreements like the one with Malaysia.

“We must be prepared for more bumps along the road,” Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned at a political convention Sunday. “We are not sure yet, but we may be forced to take a few steps back before we can take more steps forward.”

Countries across the world, including Singapore, are already sealing their borders to travelers from South Africa, where Omicron was first detected, and other countries where the variant has spread. Japan on Monday joined Israel as the only two nations to ban entry to all foreigners. The Philippines postponed a program that would have allowed some vaccinated foreign visitors, and Australia and India said they would review plans to ease border restrictions.

Cases of the variant, which display early signs of greater resistance to immunity generated from infections or vaccines, have been discovered in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy and the Netherlands. Portugal announced Monday that 13 Omicron cases were detected among members of a local soccer team. No cases have been confirmed in the United States yet.

 

U.S. health officials said it would take two weeks for scientists to determine the threat level of the Omicron variant. The danger could be compounded by the arrival of winter, when people spend more time indoors, giving the virus more opportunity to spread.

The specter of new lockdowns and travel restrictions rattled stock markets in Asia on Monday as investors tried to assess the impact of the emerging variant on a continent that generates 40% of the world’s GDP.

Japan, which had begun allowing limited entry for foreigners Nov. 8, announced that it would reverse those measures and stop admitting newly arriving foreign nationals starting Tuesday, citing the variant. (Foreigners with previously issued visas can still return to Japan.) The country had maintained stringent border controls throughout most of the pandemic and has recently seen infections plummet to about 100 a day, down from a peak of more than 25,000 in August.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the move was aimed at preventing “the worst-case scenario,” calling it only “a temporary measure” until more is known about the new variant. He said Japan was analyzing the case of an arrival from Namibia who tested positive for COVID-19 to find out if the traveler was infected with the Omicron variant.

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