Travel Restrictions May Buy Some Time Against Omicron Variant, WHO Says

The World Health Organization (WHO) announced Friday that travel restrictions could buy some time before the COVID-19 Omicron variant enters countries, the Associated Press reported.

WHO's regional director for the Western Pacific, Dr. Takeshi Kasai, told reporters that new border control restrictions could delay the virus, "but every country and every community must prepare for new surges in cases."

Scientists are working on learning more about the new variant, but so far the information they have doesn't change the way the WHO responds to the virus, Kasai said.

However, Kasai said that based on the early information, the Omicron variant has been deemed a concern because it contains a high number of mutations and might be spreading easier than previous variants.

Kasai said that over the past seven weeks, cases have been rising across the world and more deaths have been reported, mostly from the Delta variant.

"We should not be surprised to see more surges in the future," Kasai said. "As long as transmission continues, the virus can continue to mutate, as the emergence of Omicron demonstrates, reminding us of the need to stay vigilant."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

South Korea, South Korea, Covid-19
A traveler arrives at a COVID-19 testing center at the Incheon International Airport in Incheon, South Korea, on December 1, 2021. South Korea's daily jump in coronavirus infections exceeded 5,000 for the first time since the start of the pandemic as a Delta-driven surge pushed hospitalizations and deaths to record highs. Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo

While about three dozen countries worldwide have reported omicron infections, including India on Thursday, the numbers so far are small outside of South Africa, which is facing a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases and where the new variant may be becoming dominant. Still, much remains unclear about omicron, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, or whether it can evade vaccine protection.

"The positive news in all of this is that none of the information we have currently about omicron suggests we need to change the directions of our response," said Kasai.

That means continuing to push for higher vaccination rates, abiding by social-distancing guidelines, and wearing masks, among other measures, said WHO Regional Emergency Director Dr. Babatunde Olowokure.

He added that health systems must "ensure we are treating the right patients in the right place at the right time, and so therefore ensuring that ICU beds are available, particularly for those who need them."

Kasai warned: "We cannot be complacent."

WHO has previously urged against border closures, noting they often have limited effect and can cause major disruptions. Officials in southern Africa, where the omicron variant was first identified, have decried restrictions on travelers from the region, saying they are being punished for alerting the world to the mutant strain.

A few countries in Western Pacific region are facing surges that began before Omicron was identified, though COVID-19 cases and deaths in many others have decreased or plateaued, Kasai said. But that could change.

Among the places that have found the variant in the region are Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Malaysia—and it is likely to crop up in more places.

The emergence of omicron is of particular concern for organizers of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games, now about two months away.

Beijing is adopting a series of measures to reduce the risk the virus will spread during the Games, Zhao Weidong, spokesperson for the organizing committee, told reporters at a briefing on Friday.

China has adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward COVID-19 transmission and has some of the world's strictest border controls. Games participants will have to live and compete inside a bubble, and only spectators who are residents of China and have been vaccinated and tested will be permitted at venues.

"It is clear that this pandemic is far from over and I know that people are worried about Omicron," Kasai said. "But my message today is that we can adapt the way we manage this virus to better cope with the future surges and reduce their health, social and economic impacts."

Omicron, Airport, Amsterdam,
Above, a worker at a coronavirus testing facility waits for passengers to arrive from South Africa at Amsterdam Schiphol airport on December 2, 2021, in the Netherlands. The Netherlands and other nations have temporarily banned most travelers from South Africa after the COVID-19 Omicron variant was discovered. Pierre Crom/Getty Images