Global Omicron fight hampered by fragmented response

ROME – In a terribly familiar cycle of tracking first cases, pointing fingers and banning travel, nations around the world reacted to th...


ROME – In a terribly familiar cycle of tracking first cases, pointing fingers and banning travel, nations around the world reacted to the Omicron variant of the coronavirus on Monday in the fragmentary way that defined – and hampered – the response to the pandemic from the start.

As fear and resignation gripped much of the world, the World Health Organization warned that the risk posed by the strongly mutated variant was “very high”. But once again operating in a vacuum of evidence, governments chose approaches that differed between continents, between neighboring countries, and even between cities within those countries.

Little is known about Omicron beyond its large number of mutations; it will be at least weeks before scientists can say for sure whether it’s more contagious – early evidence suggests – whether it causes more serious illness and how it responds to vaccines.

In China, more and more alone at to seal as it sought to eradicate the virus, a Communist Party-controlled newspaper gloated over democracies that now follow suit as Japan, Australia and other countries have given up on flirting with a return to the normal and closed their borders to the world. The West, he said, had accumulated vaccines at the expense of poorer regions, and was now paying the price for its selfishness.

In the United States, federal officials on Monday called on those vaccinated to receive boosters. President Biden has sought to reassure Americans, saying the new variant is “a cause for concern, not a cause for panic” and that his administration was already working with vaccine makers to modify vaccines, should it prove to be. necessary.

“We are throwing everything we have on this virus, following it from every angle,” the president said during an appearance at the White House.

In southern Africa, where scientists first identified Omicron amid a largely unvaccinated population, leaders lamented travel bans as ruinous and counterproductive to tracking the virus, saying they could discourage transparency about epidemics. African officials also noted that due to inequality in vaccine distribution, the continent faces the latter variant with little or no protection.

But with vaccine deliveries to Africa becoming more reliable, some states have turned to a vaccine mandate to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Sunday, the Ghanaian government announcement that government employees, healthcare workers, staff and students in most schools should be vaccinated by January 22.

Europe, which has acted unusually by banning travel from southern Africa, is ramping up booster shots in hopes they will work against Omicron and adjusting or reconsidering a mishmash of social distancing measures, even in countries resistant to restrictions like Great Britain.

“The lack of a cohesive and coherent global approach has resulted in a fragmented and disjointed response, generating misunderstandings, misinformation and mistrust,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director of the World Health Organization.

WHO has convened a special three-day session to discuss a treaty that would ensure rapid sharing of data and technology and equitable access to vaccines. The European Union pushed for the agreement to be legally binding, but the United States hesitated.

The proposal itself pointed out that two years after the start of a devastating pandemic that has killed millions of people, devastated national economies and deprived many of the world’s children of nearly two years of formative experiences, there is still no no global plan to get out of it.

While the widely vaccinated West clings to initial reports that Omicron may cause milder disease and may be susceptible to vaccines, entire swathes of Africa remain largely unvaccinated. Some countries, such as South Africa, have sufficient doses but have struggled to distribute them. Others lack freezers, logistics infrastructure and medical personnel to vaccinate their populations.

This gave the virus a lot of time and body to multiply and mutate.

Travel bans are meant to buy time as scientists determine whether mutations in the new variant will allow it to dodge existing vaccines. But they also seemed to suggest that the main lessons of the early phase of the pandemic need to be learned again: an infection discovered somewhere is probably everywhere – or maybe soon enough – and a single detected case means a lot more undetected.

Portugal reported 13 Omicron cases on Monday – all linked to a single football team – and Scotland reported six, while numbers in South Africa continued to soar.

Experts have warned that the variant will reach all regions of the world, if it hasn’t already.

Leaders of the world’s highest powers insisted they understood this, but their assurances also had a strong surge of geopolitics.

Chinese President Xi Jinping offered Africa one billion doses of the Covid vaccine, in addition to the nearly 200 million Beijing has already shipped to the continent, during an address at a conference in Senegal via video link.

The Global Times, a Chinese tabloid controlled by the Communist Party, boasted of China’s success in thwarting transmission of the virus, and said the West is now paying the price for its selfish policies. “Western countries control most of the resources needed to fight the Covid-19 pandemic,” he writes. “But they have failed to curb the spread of the virus and have exposed more and more developing countries to the virus.”

Mr Biden said the United States sent more free vaccines overseas than all the rest of the world combined. “Now we need the rest of the world to step up as well,” he said.

European health ministers seemed to agree.

“The identification of the Omicron variant in the southern part of Africa confirms the urgency to do more to immunize the population of the most fragile countries”, said the Italian Minister of Health, Roberto Speranza, during a virtual meeting of health ministers representing seven of the richest major democracies.

He called on these countries to help administer the vaccines. “It is not enough to give doses,” said Mr. Speranza.

Days after seeing evidence of a new variant, South African scientists, who run the continent’s most advanced genomic sequencing labs, identified it. Last Wednesday, they made their findings public.

After other parts of the world, including the United States and the European Union, responded with travel bans to southern Africa, South African officials protested that their country was being punished for its speed. and its transparency.

Responses to the coronavirus have been as varied as the nations threatened by it.

Israel, the first country to block travel in response to Omicron, has granted its intelligence service temporary permission to monitor the phone data of people with confirmed cases of the variant.

In Italy, which has kept infections low with some of the strictest rules in Europe, the country’s conference of mayors urged the government to impose a national outdoor mask mandate from December 6 to January 15, as the crowds gather to buy and celebrate Christmas.

Even Britain, which has taken a lax approach to mask-wearing and other social distancing measures, has stepped up its response to Omicron. The country introduced new mask mandates and new travel restrictions and appeared to soften its opposition to vaccine passports and demand masks in restaurants. And Britain’s Vaccine Advisory Board said on Monday it suggested an expansion of the country’s recall program.

In Germany, already hard hit by the latest pandemic wave, the fear of the Omicron variant was palpable.

“It looks different from the first information we got about the Delta variant,” said Christian Drosten, a prominent German virologist, describing himself as “quite worried”.

On Monday, the German government announced that Angela Merkel, state governors and Olaf Scholz, who is due to succeed Merkel as chancellor next week, had brought a scheduled meeting nine days forward on potential lockdown measures.

“We have to buy time,” Karl Lauterbach, a member of parliament and public health expert who is considered a strong candidate to be the health minister of the new German government, said on Twitter. “Nothing is worse than a new variant in an ongoing wave.”

Pauline Londeix, a leading French activist for greater access to medicines and transparent drug policies, told France Inter radio Monday that variants would continue to emerge unless richer countries no longer share vaccines. “We need a much more systemic approach,” she said.

The European Commission on Monday urged member states not to impose additional travel restrictions on their citizens.

Contrary to the patchwork of European regulations, China has had a more coherent and clearer policy: it has essentially come full circle because it pursues a “Zero Covid” strategy.

China has consistently kept a wall up against visitors from the rest of the world. Foreign residents and visa holders are only allowed in limited circumstances, leading some in the business world to fear that Covid restrictions will leave the country increasingly isolated.

Visitors must submit to two-week quarantines upon arrival and face potential travel limitations thereafter. Movement is tracked through smartphone monitoring apps, which display color codes that can signal if a person has traveled to or through an area with recent infections, triggering instructions to stay in one location.

In other parts of Asia, people are focusing less on eradicating the virus than on just survival.

“This is terrifying news,” said Gurinder Singh, 57, in New Delhi, who worried about the bankruptcy of his store. “If this virus spreads to India, the government will shut the country down again and we will be forced to beg. “

The report was provided by Declan walsh from Nairobi, Patrick kingsley of Jerusalem, Carlos tejada from Seoul, Sameer Yasir from Srinagar, India, Lynsey chutel South Africa, Aurelien Breeden from Paris, Elian Peltier and Monika pronczuk from Brussels, Megan specia from London, Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin, Emma Bubola from Rome and Nick cumming bruce from Geneva.

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