The World Health Organization, WHO, on Monday, raised alarm that the global risk from the omicron variant is “very high” based on the early evidence, saying the mutated coronavirus could lead to surges with “severe consequences.”
The assessment from the global health organization 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.
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.
According to WHO, there are “considerable uncertainties” about the omicron variant, and there is 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.
“Depending 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,” it added. “The overall global risk … is assessed as very high.”
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.
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.
“Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It’s not done with us,” 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 plateaued, while Asian markets fell further.
U.S. President Joe Biden called the omicron variant a cause for concern but “not a cause for panic.” 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.
While the initial global response to COVID-19 was criticized as slow and haphazard, the reaction to the omicron variant came quickly.
“This time the world showed it is learning,” said EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise. “South Africa’s analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response.”