WHO warns that new virus variant poses 'very high' risk

  • People stand holding shopping bags on Regent Street in London, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday, even as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be. In Britain, mask-wearing in shops and on public transport will be required, starting Tuesday.

    People stand holding shopping bags on Regent Street in London, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday, even as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be. In Britain, mask-wearing in shops and on public transport will be required, starting Tuesday. Associated Press

  • A man disinfects a wall to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Harare, Zimbabwe, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. The World Health Organisation has urged countries not to impose flight bans on southern African countries due to concerns over the new omicron variant.

    A man disinfects a wall to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Harare, Zimbabwe, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. The World Health Organisation has urged countries not to impose flight bans on southern African countries due to concerns over the new omicron variant. Associated Press

  • Residents wait to be inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines outside a school during the first day of a nationwide three-day vaccination drive in Quezon city, Philippines on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. There has been no reported infection so far caused by the new variant in the Philippines, a Southeast Asian pandemic hotspot where COVID-19 cases have considerably dropped to below 1,000 each day in recent days, but the emergence of the Omicron variant has set off a new alarm.

    Residents wait to be inoculated with COVID-19 vaccines outside a school during the first day of a nationwide three-day vaccination drive in Quezon city, Philippines on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. There has been no reported infection so far caused by the new variant in the Philippines, a Southeast Asian pandemic hotspot where COVID-19 cases have considerably dropped to below 1,000 each day in recent days, but the emergence of the Omicron variant has set off a new alarm. Associated Press

  • A traveler on the last flight to Morocco before flights are suspended, arrives at a terminal in Rabat airport, Morocco, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Morocco announced it would suspend all incoming air travel from around the world starting Monday for two weeks because of the rapid spread of the new omicron variant, the government's committee in charge of monitoring COVID-19 announced Sunday.

    A traveler on the last flight to Morocco before flights are suspended, arrives at a terminal in Rabat airport, Morocco, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Morocco announced it would suspend all incoming air travel from around the world starting Monday for two weeks because of the rapid spread of the new omicron variant, the government's committee in charge of monitoring COVID-19 announced Sunday. Associated Press

  • A woman holds onto a cotton pad after being inoculated with AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine during the first day of a nationwide three-day vaccination drive at a school in Quezon city, Philippines on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. There has been no reported infection so far caused by the new variant in the Philippines, a Southeast Asian pandemic hotspot where COVID-19 cases have considerably dropped to below 1,000 each day in recent days, but the emergence of the Omicron variant has set off a new alarm.

    A woman holds onto a cotton pad after being inoculated with AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine during the first day of a nationwide three-day vaccination drive at a school in Quezon city, Philippines on Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. There has been no reported infection so far caused by the new variant in the Philippines, a Southeast Asian pandemic hotspot where COVID-19 cases have considerably dropped to below 1,000 each day in recent days, but the emergence of the Omicron variant has set off a new alarm. Associated Press

  • People wearing protective masks walk around the famed Shibuya scramble crossing in a shopping and entertainment district Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Tokyo.

    People wearing protective masks walk around the famed Shibuya scramble crossing in a shopping and entertainment district Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, in Tokyo. Associated Press

  • Passengers walk from a COVID -19 testing tent at Johannesburg's OR Tambo's airport Monday Nov. 29, 2021. The World Health Organisation urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concern over the new omicron variant.

    Passengers walk from a COVID -19 testing tent at Johannesburg's OR Tambo's airport Monday Nov. 29, 2021. The World Health Organisation urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concern over the new omicron variant. Associated Press

  • Students wearing face masks to protect from COVID-19 are escorted by a teacher as they leave school after classes in Beijing, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Despite the global worry, scientists caution that it's still unclear whether the omicron COVID-19 variant is more dangerous than other versions of the virus that has killed more than 5 million people. Some countries are continuing with previous plans to loosen restrictions, with signs of reopening in Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand.

    Students wearing face masks to protect from COVID-19 are escorted by a teacher as they leave school after classes in Beijing, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Despite the global worry, scientists caution that it's still unclear whether the omicron COVID-19 variant is more dangerous than other versions of the virus that has killed more than 5 million people. Some countries are continuing with previous plans to loosen restrictions, with signs of reopening in Malaysia, Singapore and New Zealand. Associated Press

  • A passenger makes his way through Johannesburg's OR Tambo's airport Monday Nov. 29, 2021. The World Health Organisation urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concern over the new omicron variant.

    A passenger makes his way through Johannesburg's OR Tambo's airport Monday Nov. 29, 2021. The World Health Organisation urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concern over the new omicron variant. Associated Press

  • Students from Norway who were on a field trip to South Africa wait to be tested for COVID-19 before boarding a flight to Amsterdam at Johannesburg's OR Tambo's airport Monday Nov. 29, 2021. The World Health Organisation urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concern over the new omicron variant.

    Students from Norway who were on a field trip to South Africa wait to be tested for COVID-19 before boarding a flight to Amsterdam at Johannesburg's OR Tambo's airport Monday Nov. 29, 2021. The World Health Organisation urged countries around the world not to impose flight bans on southern African nations due to concern over the new omicron variant. Associated Press

  • Customers have lunch in a restaurant in Hong Kong, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. The new omicron variant was found in Hong Kong, Belgium and Tel Aviv. The European Union, the United States and Britain imposed curbs on travel from Africa. Israel banned entry by foreigners.

    Customers have lunch in a restaurant in Hong Kong, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. The new omicron variant was found in Hong Kong, Belgium and Tel Aviv. The European Union, the United States and Britain imposed curbs on travel from Africa. Israel banned entry by foreigners. Associated Press

  • People queue in line to wait for the coronavirus testing at a temporary screening clinic for the coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.

    People queue in line to wait for the coronavirus testing at a temporary screening clinic for the coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Associated Press

  • A medical worker wearing protective gear in a booth, wears plastic gloves at a temporary screening clinic for the coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021.

    A medical worker wearing protective gear in a booth, wears plastic gloves at a temporary screening clinic for the coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Associated Press

  • People wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 walk in downtown Lisbon, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Portuguese health authorities on Monday identified 13 cases of omicron, the new coronavirus variant spreading fast globally, among members of the Lisbon-based Belenenses SAD soccer club, and were investigating possible local transmission of the virus outside of southern Africa.

    People wearing face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 walk in downtown Lisbon, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Portuguese health authorities on Monday identified 13 cases of omicron, the new coronavirus variant spreading fast globally, among members of the Lisbon-based Belenenses SAD soccer club, and were investigating possible local transmission of the virus outside of southern Africa. Associated Press

  • People pass through Waterloo train station, in London, during the morning rush hour, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. The new potentially more contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in more European countries on Saturday, just days after being identified in South Africa, leaving governments around the world scrambling to stop the spread. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said mask-wearing in shops and on public transport will be required, starting Tuesday.

    People pass through Waterloo train station, in London, during the morning rush hour, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. The new potentially more contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in more European countries on Saturday, just days after being identified in South Africa, leaving governments around the world scrambling to stop the spread. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said mask-wearing in shops and on public transport will be required, starting Tuesday. Associated Press

  • Passengers carry luggage at the airport in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday, even as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be.

    Passengers carry luggage at the airport in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021. Countries around the world slammed their doors shut again to try to keep the new omicron variant at bay Monday, even as more cases of the mutant coronavirus emerged and scientists raced to figure out just how dangerous it might be. Associated Press

  • People wear face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 on a bus in Harare, Zimbabwe, Monday, Nov, 29, 2021. The World Health Organisation has urged countries not to impose flight bans on southern African countries due to concerns over the new omicron variant.

    People wear face masks to curb the spread of COVID-19 on a bus in Harare, Zimbabwe, Monday, Nov, 29, 2021. The World Health Organisation has urged countries not to impose flight bans on southern African countries due to concerns over the new omicron variant. Associated Press

  • The capital's shopping streets are near-empty after 5 pm in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, after a tougher COVID-19 related lockdown came into effect starting Sunday, moving closing time forward of three hours from 8 pm amid swiftly rising infections and ICU admissions.

    The capital's shopping streets are near-empty after 5 pm in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Monday, Nov. 29, 2021, after a tougher COVID-19 related lockdown came into effect starting Sunday, moving closing time forward of three hours from 8 pm amid swiftly rising infections and ICU admissions. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 11/29/2021 6:00 PM

GENEVA -- The World Health Organization warned Monday that the global risk from the omicron variant is 'úvery high'Ě based on the early evidence, saying the mutated coronavirus could lead to surges with 'úsevere consequences.'Ě

The assessment from the U.N. health agency, contained in a technical paper issued to member states, amounted to WHO's strongest, most explicit warning yet about the new version that was first identified days ago by researchers in South Africa.

 

It came as a widening circle of countries around the world reported cases of the variant and moved to slam their doors in an act-now-ask-questions-later approach while scientists race to figure out just how dangerous the mutant version might be.

Japan announced it is barring entry to all foreign visitors, joining Israel in doing so. Morocco banned all incoming flights. Other countries, including the U.S. and members of the European Union, have moved to prohibit travelers arriving from southern Africa.

WHO said there are "considerable uncertainties'Ě about the omicron variant. But it said preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.

'úDepending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors, including where surges may take place,'Ě it added. 'úThe overall global risk ... is assessed as very high.'Ě

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The WHO stressed that while scientists are hunting evidence to better understand this variant, countries should accelerate vaccinations as quickly as possible.

While no deaths linked to omicron have been reported so far, little is known for certain about the variant, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade vaccines. Last week, a WHO advisory panel said it might be more likely to re-infect people who have already had a bout with COVID-19.

Scientists have long warned that the virus will keep finding new ways to exploit weaknesses in the world's vaccination drive, and its discovery in Africa occurred in a continent where under 7% of the population is vaccinated.

'úThe emergence of the omicron variant has fulfilled, in a precise way, the predictions of the scientists who warned that the elevated transmission of the virus in areas with limited access to vaccine would speed its evolution,'Ě said Dr. Richard Hatchett, head of CEPI, one of the founders of the U.N.-backed global vaccine sharing initiative COVAX.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Spain on Monday became one of the latest countries to report its first confirmed omicron case, detected in a traveler who returned Sunday from South Africa after making a stopover in Amsterdam.

While the majority of omicron infections recorded around the world have been in travelers arriving from abroad, cases in Portugal and Scotland have raised fears that the variant may already be spreading locally.

'úMany of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It's not done with us,'Ě warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO's director-general.

Days after the variant sent a shudder through the financial world nearly two years into the pandemic that has killed over 5 million people, markets had a mixed reaction Monday. European stocks rebounded and Wall Street steadied itself, while Asian markets fell further.

U.S. President Joe Biden called the omicron variant a cause for concern but 'únot a cause for panic.'Ě He said he is not considering any widespread U.S. lockdown and instead urged mask-wearing and vaccinations, even as a federal judge blocked his administration from enforcing a requirement that thousands of health care workers in 10 states get the shot.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reacted to the potential threat by urging everyone 18 and older to get booster shots, because 'ústrong immunity will likely prevent serious illness." Earlier this month, the U.S. opened boosters to all adults but recommended them only for those 50 and older or people in long-term care.

The omicron infections have underscored the difficulty in keeping the virus in check in a globalized world of jet travel and open borders. Yet many countries are trying to do just that, against the urging of the WHO, which noted that border closings often have limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.

Some have argued that such restrictions can buy valuable time to analyze the new variant.

While the initial global response to COVID-19 was criticized as slow and haphazard, the reaction to the omicron variant came quickly.

'úThis time the world showed it is learning,'Ě said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise. 'úSouth Africa's analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response.'Ě

Late last week, von der Leyen successfully pushed the 27-nation EU to agree to ban flights from seven southern African nations, similar to what many other countries are doing.

Cases have been reported in such places as Canada, Germany, Britain, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal, where authorities identified 13 omicron infections among members of the Belenenses professional soccer team.

Taking no chances, Japan, which has yet to detect any omicron cases, reimposed border controls that it had eased earlier this month.

'úWe are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan,'Ě Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said.

Israel likewise decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks.

Britain reacted by expanding its COVID-19 booster program to everyone 18 and older, making millions more people eligible. Up until now, booster shots were available only to those 40 and over and people particularly vulnerable to the virus. The U.K. has reported about a dozen omicron cases.

Despite the global worry, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms so far. But they warn that it is early. Also, most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.

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Yamaguchi reported from Tokyo, Casert from Brussels. Associated Press journalists from around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP's coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic

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