Countries around the world struggled to come to terms with a bleak new turn in the nearly 2-year-old pandemic, with the World Health Organization warning Monday that omicron, a highly mutated variant of the coronavirus, poses a “very high” global risk of new outbreaks.
The variant’s emergence “underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday.
“We shouldn’t need another wake-up call,” said Tedros. “We should all be wide awake to the threat of this virus.”
In measures reminiscent of the outbreak’s early days, when the virus swiftly circumnavigated the globe, some governments moved to impose travel bans and border closures in a bid to keep the variant at bay.
Japan said Monday it would bar noncitizens from entry, becoming the second country, after Israel, to do so. Morocco went a step further, barring all incoming flights for two weeks, and many nations have restricted travel from South Africa, where the variant was detected last week.
But omicron has already been detected in more than a dozen countries, including the U.S.’s northern neighbor, Canada, and health authorities said the variant’s contagiousness, and the wide geographic dispersal of existing cases, suggest it is already in wide circulation.
Regions where the mutation has been found range from Europe to the Middle East to East Asia, in countries that include Britain, Germany, France, Portugal, Denmark, Israel, Hong Kong and Australia.
Experts stressed that much remains unknown about this variant, including the severity of illness it causes — no deaths have yet been attributed to it — and how effective existing vaccines are against it.
Finding even preliminary answers to these questions will probably take a week or two, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the premier COVID-19 adviser to the Biden administration. While no U.S. cases have yet been reported, Fauci told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Monday that it was “inevitable” that the variant would find a way in.
In Washington, President Joe Biden said omicron was “cause for concern, not a cause for panic.” He used a speech from the White House to again call on Americans to get vaccinated, and to get a booster shot if they had already gotten the vaccine.