Coronavirus digest: Japan bars foreign travelers as omicron spreads

By DW

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As concerns over the new omicron COVID variant grow, Japan is reinstating curbs for foreign arrivals. The WHO has said the risk of global infection surges posed by the variant is “very high.” DW has the latest.

Japan is joining Israel in closing its borders to foreign travelers following the emergence of the omicron variant

Just weeks after loosening some entry rules, Japan will once again ban entry to all foreign arrivals to curb the spread of the omicron variant, officials announced on Monday.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said the ban for foreign travelers would take effect on Tuesday. Japanese returnees from 14 countries where the variant has been found will be required to quarantine at designated facilities.

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“In order to avoid a worst-case scenario and as an emergency precautionary measure, Japan will first of all ban the entry of foreigners into the country from midnight on Nov. 30,” Kishida said at a press conference.

 

For most of the pandemic, Japan has kept its borders closed to tourists and other foreign travelers. At the beginning of November, the government softened some entry rules to allow visa holders, students and some business travelers into the country.

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The emergence of the omicron variant prompted officials to scrap those plans.

The new COVID-19 variant, which was named by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a “variant of concern” on Friday, was first identified in South Africa and has now been confirmed in several of countries in southern Africa, Europe and Asia.

While several countries have implemented travel restrictions and quarantine requirements over the omicron variant, Japan has joined Israel in banning all new foreign arrivals.

Here is a roundup of the latest COVID news from around the world.

Global
In a new statement, the WHO said there is “substantial uncertainty” regarding how contagious omicron is or how well current COVID vaccines hold up against the new variant. The UN health agency added that the variant carries a “very high” risk of global infection surges.

Vaccine producers say they need two or three weeks to get a better picture of the variant’s numerous mutations. The agency also said that donations of vaccines must be organized better.

The WHO’s World Health Assembly is holding a special meeting on Monday to discuss a potential “pandemic treaty.” While representatives from the body’s 194-member states will discuss how to handle the next pandemic — uncertainties over the omicron variant will likely cast a shadow over the talks.

G7 health ministers are also set to hold emergency talks on Monday to discuss their response to the new COVID variant, as well as travel bans.

The head of vaccine maker Moderna, Stephane Bancel, said it might take two to six weeks to get data on how effective vaccines are against the omicron variant. Talking to US broadcaster CNBC, he also said it would take months until new, omicron-specific can be shipped. Germany’s BioNTech said they were already working on developing a modified vaccine, while simultaneously checking their old vaccine’s efficacy against omicron.

Europe
More omicron cases are cropping up in Europe, with several countries confirming the presence of the variant on Monday.

Scotland confirmed six new cases of the variant, bringing the UK’s total up to nine. Sturgeon Portugal has detected 13 cases, all of which are related to players on the Lisbon soccer team Beleneses — although only one player recently traveled to South Africa.

France is awaiting lab confirmation for eight suspected cases, while Switzerland also logged its first suspected case. All of the cases are linked to people who recently traveled to southern Africa.

COVID-19: New uncertainty due to omicron variant
Dutch military police detained a couple who tried to flee a hotel where they were in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19.

The married couple made it to “an airplane that was about to depart” when authorities detained them. The arrests came after officials in the Netherlands said 61 people who flew into the country on Friday had tested positive for COVID — 13 of whom had contracted the omicron variant.

Spain has imposed a mandatory 10-day quarantine travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Germany logged a new record-high incidence rate on Monday as the country battles a fourth wave of infections.

The seven-day incidence rate hit a high of 452.4 new infections per 100,000 people per week, Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported on Monday. A week ago, the rate was 386.5 while a month prior the rate was at 64.3.

The RKI also logged 29,364 new cases and 73 deaths in the last 24 hours. Germany has already confirmed at least three cases of the omicron variant.

Africa
South Africa is working with countries that quickly imposed travel bans, in the hopes of reversing them, Health Minister Joe Phaahla said. Officials are also doing as much as possible to ensure health facilities are prepared to handle potentially higher caseloads due to the omicron variant.

The government previously criticized the travel bans, saying South Africa is being “punished” for detecting and sounding the alarm over the new variant.

South Africa: Locals, tourists despair over travel bans
Middle East
Israel confirmed a second case of the omicron variant, local media reported. The second case was found in a fully-vaccinated person who returned to Israel from South Africa. The Health Ministry is also checking another 11 suspected cases of the new variant, reported the Haaretz newspaper.

Asia
The Philippines kicked off an ambitious campaign to vaccinate 9 million people over the next three days. Thousands of volunteers and security forces have been deployed to help roll out the vaccine drive in the archipelago nation. The Philippines has been hit particularly hard by COVID-19 and its vaccine rollout has been slow compared to its neighbors. Around one third of the country’s 110 million population are fully vaccinated.

What makes omicron different from delta?
Malaysia and Singapore moved forward with plans to reopen their land border on Monday. The border, one of the busiest in the world, had been closed for nearly two years. While many were happy to reunite with family and friends, travelers voiced concerns that the omicron variant could once again close the border.

Oceania
Australia confirmed a third case of the new omicron variant on Monday in a traveler who had recently arrived from South Africa. The first two cases were confirmed in two other travelers from South Africa who were both fully vaccinated and had shown no symptoms. All three people are currently in quarantine. Australian officials are meeting on Monday to consider whether to continue with plans to relax border restrictions later this week.

New Zealand, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with its plans to ease COVID curbs. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said restaurants, bars and gyms in Auckland will reopen as scheduled on Thursday. The city had been under lockdown since August.

rs/wmr (AFP, Reuters, AP, dpa)

 

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