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Barriers pop up as Omicron spreads, prompting calls for fairness

Omicron cases popped up in a handful of new countries on Wednesday - including Brazil, Nigeria and the United States - prompting more concern, but also a plea from the UN not to default to border closures.

Omicron cases popped up in a handful of new countries on Wednesday – including Brazil, Nigeria and the United States – prompting more concern, but also a plea from the UN not to default to border closures.

Researchers in South Africa publicized data highlighting the new strain last week. Since then, dozens of countries have targeted the region of southern Africa with travel bans and restrictions.

“With a virus that is truly borderless, travel restrictions that isolate any one country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive — they are ineffective,” argued UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday.

“I appeal to all governments to consider instead repeated testing for travellers, together with other appropriate and truly effective measures.

“Let’s use those instruments to avoid this kind of – allow me to say – travel apartheid, which I think is unacceptable.”

He also argued that the discovery of the strain in Africa was not an argument to punish the region for “sharing crucial science,” but one to make sure that vaccines get to that part of the world.

“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available to them,” Guterres said.

The statements came even as a researcher told a forum in Pretoria that Omicron would likely soon be the dominant coronavirus variety in southern Africa.

“What we see is a new variant completely taking over,” said Tulio de Oliveira of South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation.

Later Wednesday, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) said the number of new cases in South Africa had doubled over the past 24 hours hours to 8,561 – although it was not clear whether Omicron was driving this trend.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), at least 56 countries have introduced travel restrictions focused on southern Africa since Omicron’s existence was publicized.

On Wednesday, South Korea announced that all foreign arrivals will have to enter a 10-day quarantine starting on Friday. The rule would apply regardless of vaccination status and to citizens and visitors alike.

South Korea reported its first Omicron cases on Wednesday. It had previously put restrictions on arrivals from eight southern African nations.

But the restrictions seemed to be doing little good as the new strain popped up in more and more countries.

In the US, the new case was in a fully vaccinated person who had returned from South Africa on November 22. The patient was in quarantine and had only experienced mild symptoms.

In Brazil, there were three cases. New portal G1 said two involved Brazilian missionaries living in South Africa. A third was in an Ethiopian who had arrived in the country on Saturday.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, three people tested positive for the variant, according to Ifedayo Adetifa, a physician from the National Centre for Communicable Diseases (NCDC).

Saudi Arabia confirmed its first case of the variant in a Saudi man returning from a North African country, Saudi Arabia’s state news agency SPA reported, citing an official at the Health Ministry. The official did not name that country.

The new variant was also confirmed for the first time in Norway after two cases were detected on Wednesday in the municipality of Oygarden west of Bergen.

The WHO has classified Omicron as a “variant of concern.”

The EU health authority, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, has serious concerns that Omicron could significantly reduce the effectiveness of vaccines and increase the risk of reinfection. The exact effects of the mutated variant are not yet known.

Also on Wednesday, the 194 member countries of the WHO said they would work out an international agreement to better prepare for future pandemics.

They concluded this by consensus at the end of their special session in Geneva on Wednesday.

A working group is to begin consultations before March 1, 2022, but it is not to present final results until the WHO’S annual assembly in 2024.

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