Countries Close Borders as More Omicron Cases Emerge

ImageStaff members at the departure gate of Tokyo’s Haneda international airport on Monday, as Japan announced plans to bar all new foreign travelers over the Omicron variant.
Credit…Philip Fong/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Japan on Monday joined Israel and Morocco in barring all foreign travelers, and Australia delayed reopening its borders for two weeks, as more countries sealed themselves off in response to the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

The Japanese prime minister, Fumio Kishida, said that Japan would reverse a move earlier this month to reopen its borders to short-term business travelers and international students. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, has been closed to tourists since early in the pandemic, a policy it has maintained even as other wealthy nations reopened to vaccinated visitors.

The emergence of the Omicron variant in southern Africa has left countries around the world scrambling to respond, with some instituting or considering sweeping travel bans, while others have put in place more focused, but also more discriminatory, border prohibitions.

Some countries proceeded with their plans to reopen on Monday, like Singapore and Malaysia, which opened their land border. South Korea, on the other hand, announced that it was delaying any loosening of social distancing restrictions.

Around the world, the trend was toward shutting down, not opening up, as a cascade of border closures and travel restrictions began to recall the earliest days of the pandemic — even in the absence of scientific evidence about whether such measures were likely to stop the virus’s spread.

Australia said on Monday that it would delay by two weeks its plan to reopen its borders to international students, skilled migrants and travelers from Japan and South Korea. The country said it would use the delay, to Dec. 15, to study whether the Omicron variant is more dangerous than the Delta variant, which raced across the world earlier this year.

Israel reopened to vaccinated tourists only four weeks ago.

Hours after Israel announced its blanket ban over the weekend, Morocco said on Sunday that it would deny entry to all travelers, even Moroccan citizens, for two weeks beginning Monday. The country is banning all incoming and outgoing flights over the two-week period.

The moves by Japan, Israel and Morocco stood in contrast to those in places like the United States, Britain, Canada and the European Union, which have all announced bans on travelers only from southern Africa.

Meanwhile, Indonesia on Monday joined a small but growing list of countries to bar travel with Hong Kong as well as the southern African region. Hong Kong detected two cases of Omicron on Thursday, prompting India, Pakistan and other nations to impose a travel ban.

The travel bans have triggered resentment among Africans who believed that the continent was yet again bearing the brunt of panicked policies from Western countries, which had failed to deliver vaccines and the resources needed to administer them.

In Japan, all foreign travelers except those who are residents of the country will be barred from entering starting at midnight on Monday.

In Israel, all foreign nationals will be banned from entering for at least 14 days, except for urgent humanitarian cases to be approved by a special exceptions committee. Returning vaccinated Israelis will be tested upon landing and must self-quarantine for three days, pending results of another P.C.R. test. Unvaccinated Israelis will have to self-quarantine for seven days.

Israelis returning from countries classified as “red,” with high risk of infection, including most African countries, must enter a quarantine hotel until they receive a negative result from the airport test, then transfer to home quarantine (until they get a 7-day P.C.R. test result).

Ran Balicer, the chairman of an expert panel that advises the Israeli government on Covid-19 response, said the decision was temporary and was taken out of prudence.

Japan has yet to report any cases of the new variant, though it is studying a case involving a traveler from Namibia. Israel has identified at least one confirmed case of Omicron so far — a woman who arrived from Malawi — and testing has provided indications of several more likely cases in the country.

Aida Alami contributed reporting from Morocco, and Muktita Suhartono from Indonesia.

Credit…Aaron Chown/Press Association, via Associated Press

Scotland reported six cases of the new Omicron variant on Monday, and contact tracing is underway, said Humza Yousaf, the Scottish health secretary.

“We have already taken steps and are aligning with border restrictions being introduced by the U.K. government which will require fully vaccinated arrivals to take a P.C.R. test within two days of arrival” and self-quarantine until a negative test comes back, he said in a statement. He added that it would also be “adopting the expanded red list of countries identified by the U.K. government.”

The news came as a member of Britain’s vaccine health advisory panel said it was looking at widening the country’s booster program, and after British health officials on Sunday reported a third case of Omicron in an individual who had spent time in central London.

Britain’s new travel rules for international arrivals, as well as mask regulations in shops and on public transportation in England, are expected to go into effect on Tuesday.

Despite the new measures, the British health secretary, Sajid Javid, rejected calls for tougher restrictions on daily life on Sunday.

The government has stopped short of ordering people to work from home where possible, introducing vaccine passports in England or requiring masks in restaurants. “This is about taking proportionate action against the risks we face,” Mr. Javid told the BBC on Sunday, speaking before the third case was confirmed.

The health security agency said the third case involved an individual who had spent time in the Westminster section of London, but who was no longer in the country, and that contact tracing was being performed. It said the case was linked to travel in southern Africa.

Dr. Jenny Harries, chief executive of the agency, said it was “very likely” that there would be more cases in the coming days.

Britain began suspending flights from six southern African nations on Friday, but some travelers had already arrived in London by the time the measure took effect.

Mr. Javid acknowledged that passengers landing on Friday were not tested at the airport and were able to leave as usual, including by public transport. He said that all travelers who had arrived from southern Africa within the past 10 days were being contacted and asked to take tests.

“We could not have acted more swiftly,” he said.

Mr. Javid also urged Britons to quickly get booster shots on Sunday and said he expected advice “imminently” from scientific experts on expanding the scope of the country’s vaccine program, especially with regard to boosters.

Such measures would, he added, help to “protect the progress we have made so we can continue to look forward to Christmas with family and friends.”

Credit…Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times

Top federal health officials in the United States urged unvaccinated Americans on Sunday to get their shots and for eligible adults to seek out boosters, as the discovery of a new variant sparked a new wave of travel restrictions and alarmed scientists.

Appearing on several morning talk shows on Sunday, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, cautioned Americans that the emergence of Omicron and the uncertainty that surrounds it is a reminder that the pandemic is far from over. While the variant has yet to be detected in the United States, maintaining vigilance and safeguarding public health through inoculations, masking indoors and distancing, remains critical, he said.

“I know, America, you’re really tired about hearing those things, but the virus is not tired of us,” Dr. Collins said. “And it’s shape-shifting itself.”

President Biden will give an update on the U.S. response to the variant on Monday, the White House said in a statement on Sunday evening after he met with Dr. Collins and Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert.

Much remains unknown about the Omicron variant, which has a concerning number of mutations not seen before. It is unclear whether it causes severe illness or is more transmissible than previous variants. There are also questions around whether Omicron limits vaccine’s effectiveness.

Still, Dr. Collins stressed that inoculation remains the first line of defense, saying that there are “good reasons” to believe, based on previous variants, that current vaccines will provide sufficient protection.

“Please, Americans, if you’re one of those folks who’s sort of waiting to see, this would be a great time to sign up, get your booster,” Dr. Collins said on Fox. “Or if you haven’t been vaccinated already, get started.”

He also underlined other critical mitigation efforts, including indoor masking when around unvaccinated individuals and maintaining social distance, in slowing the spread.

Dr. Fauci delivered a similar message, sending a “clarion call” for vaccinations and boosters. It is inevitable that the variant, which has already been detected in several countries, will surface in the United States, Dr. Fauci said.

“The question is, will we be prepared for it?” Dr. Fauci said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday morning. “And the preparation that we have ongoing for what we’re doing now with the Delta variant just needs to be revved up.”

The discovery of the Omicron variant stoked widespread fear and alarm, and governments around the world announced border closures to travelers from South Africa and several neighboring countries.

Credit…Sarah Orton/Reuters/Nine Network

A woman sent a quarantine hotel in Queensland, Australia, up in flames by lighting a fire under a bed in her room, according to police, triggering the evacuation of the building’s 163 occupants.

Police charged the 31-year-old woman, who was quarantining in the Pacific Hotel in the city of Cairns with her two children, with arson on Sunday.

The fire was started at about 7 a.m. on Sunday in the woman’s room on the top floor of the hotel in far north Queensland, police said. It then spread to neighboring rooms.

The hotel was quickly evacuated, and there were no injuries, said Chris Hodgman, the Queensland Police acting chief superintendent, on Sunday afternoon. But the hotel had suffered “significant damage,” he said, and the residents needed to be moved to another quarantine facility.

Photos and videos posted to social media showed flames and thick smoke pouring out of two rooms on the hotel’s 11th floor.

Credit…Sarah Orton/Reuters/Nine Network

Her two children, with whom she had been occupying the room for a few days after arriving from another state in the country, were being looked after by police, he added.

Authorities charged the woman with one count of arson and another of willful damage. She was expected to appear in a local court on Monday.

Anyone who arrives in Queensland from another state or overseas must quarantine for 14 days under the state’s pandemic borer restrictions. Those who have a house that fits government criteria around ventilation may undergo home quarantine, but those who do not must quarantine in a designated hotel and foot the bill themselves.

The incident comes as rallies against pandemic measures continue to ramp up around Australia. On Saturday, police estimated that 20,000 people took to the streets of Melbourne to protest the state government’s plans to introduce a bill that would extend its powers to impose pandemic restrictions. The previous weekend, thousands in the country’s state capitals rallied against vaccination requirements and coronavirus restrictions.

On Monday, Australia reported a third case of the Omicron coronavirus variant, in a traveler from South Africa quarantining in the Northern Territory. Two cases were discovered in travelers quarantining in New South Wales on Sunday.

Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

As nations severed air links from southern Africa amid fears of another global surge of the coronavirus, scientists scrambled on Sunday to gather data on the new Omicron variant, its capabilities and — perhaps most important — how effectively the current vaccines will protect against it.

The early findings are a mixed picture. The variant may be more transmissible and better able to evade the body’s immune responses, both to vaccination and to natural infection, than prior versions of the virus, experts said in interviews.

The vaccines may well continue to ward off severe illness and death, although booster doses may be needed to protect most people. Still, the makers of the two most effective vaccines, Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, are preparing to reformulate their shots if necessary.

“We really need to be vigilant about this new variant and preparing for it,” said Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Even as scientists began vigorous scrutiny of the new variant, countries around the world curtailed travel to and from nations in southern Africa, where Omicron was first identified. Despite the restrictions, the virus has been found in a half-dozen European countries, including the United Kingdom, as well as Australia, Israel and Hong Kong.

Already, Omicron accounts for most of the 2,300 new daily cases in the province of Gauteng, South Africa, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Sunday. Nationally, new infections have more than tripled in the past week, and test positivity has increased to 9 percent from 2 percent.

Scientists have reacted more quickly to Omicron than to any other variant. In just 36 hours from the first signs of trouble in South Africa on Tuesday, researchers analyzed samples from 100 infected patients, collated the data and alerted the world, said Tulio de Oliveira, a geneticist at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine in Durban.

Within an hour of the first alarm, scientists in South Africa also rushed to test Covid vaccines against the new variant. Now, dozens of teams worldwide — including researchers at Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna — have joined the chase.

They won’t know the results for two weeks, at the earliest. But the mutations that Omicron carries suggest that the vaccines most likely will be less effective, to some unknown degree, than they were against any previous variant.

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