Omicron spreads - Israel and Japan bar foreigners as Omicron begins to spread worldwide
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Omicron spreads

Israel and Japan bar foreigners as Omicron begins to spread worldwide


Story by Donna Millsap - The Oregon Herald
Published on November 30, 2021 4:15 AM
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TOKYO, Japan - On Monday Japan says it would close its borders to foreigners, as the world's third-largest economy joined Israel in taking the toughest measures against the new coronavirus variant Omicron, which also cast a cloud over Australia's re-opening plans.

But Markets regained some composure as investors await more details of the variant, after sinking last week on fears it could bring fresh curbs, threatening a nascent economic revival from a two-year pandemic.

The strain could be more contagious than earlier variants. Omicron was first identified in South Africa and has been found in Belgium, Australia, Botswana, Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, and the Netherlands.

It could take weeks to know the full dAnger of Omicron, says the World Health Organisation.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that Japan has closed its borders to foreigners and that he was ready for criticism that he was being too cautious.

"These are temporary, exceptional measures that we are taking for safety's sake until there is clearer information about the Omicron variant," Kishida told reporters.

Kishida did not say how long the restriction would last. Japanese returning from other nations could face quarantine in designated facilities.

As of this date, Japan has not found Omicron infections but tests are being held to determine if the new variant has infected travellers from other areas.

Israel's ban began from midnight on Sunday and has promised to use counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology to combat the new variant.

Australia will review plans to reopen its borders to students from beginning tomorrow.

Quarantining also became an issue when Dutch military police had to arrest a husband and wife who left a hotel where they were being held after testing positive and boarded a plane bound for Spain. "Quarantine is not obligatory, but we assume people will act responsibly," spokeswoman Petra Faber said.

Taking no chances, Japan, which has yet to detect any omicron cases, reimposed border controls that it eased earlier this month for short-term business visitors, foreign students and workers.

"We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said of the measure that begins Tuesday. Japan has kept its border closed to foreign tourists from all nations.

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

Despite the global worry, scientists cautioned that it's still unclear whether omicron is more alarming than other versions of a virus that has killed more than 5 million people. And in some parts of the world, authorities were moving in the opposite direction.

Malaysian officials are partially reopening bridges connecting to the Singapore and New Zealand announced continuing plans to reopen after months of shutdown, though it's also restricting travel from nine southern African nations.

BACKGROUND

The SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant is a variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. The variant was first reported to the World Health Organization from South Africa on 24 November 2021. On 26 November 2021, the WHO designated it as a variant of concern and named it after omicron, the fifteenth letter in the Greek alphabet. The variant has an unusually large number of mutations, several of which are novel and several of which affect the spike protein used for most vaccine targeting at the time of its discovery. This level of variation has led to concerns regarding transmissibility, immune system evasion, and vaccine resistance. As a result, the variant was quickly designated as being 'of concern,' and travel restrictions were introduced by several countries to limit or slow its international spread.

On 26 November, the WHO's Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution declared PANGO lineage B.1.1.529 a variant of concern and designated it with the Greek letter omicron. The WHO skipped the preceding letters nu and xi in the Greek alphabet to avoid confusion with the similarities of the English word 'new' and the Chinese surname Xi. The World Health Organization reserves the Omicron designation for 'variants of concern'.

The GISAID project has assigned it the clade identifier GR/484A and the Nextstrain project has assigned it the clade identifier 21K.

The variant has a large number of mutations, of which some are concerning. Thirty-two mutations affect the spike protein, the main antigenic target of antibodies generated by infections and of many vaccines widely administered. Many of those mutations had not been observed in other strains. The variant is characterised by 30 amino acid changes, three small deletions and one small insertion in the spike protein compared with the original virus, of which 15 are located in the receptor binding domain. It also carries a number of changes and deletions in other genomic regions. Additionally, the variant has three mutations at the furin cleavage site. The furin cleavage site increases SARS-CoV-2 infectivity. The mutations by genomic region are the following:

The WHO is concerned that the large number of mutations may reduce immunity in people who were previously infected and in vaccinated people. Then again, the omicron variant might be more ineffective in this regard than prior variants. The effects of the mutations, if any, are unknown as of late November 2021. The WHO warns that health services could be overwhelmed especially in nations with low vaccination rates where mortality and morbidity rates are likely to be much higher, and urges all nations to increase COVID vaccinations.

Professor Paul Morgan, immunologist at Cardiff University also recommends vaccination. Morgan said, "I think a blunting rather than a complete loss is the most likely outcome. The virus can't possibly lose every single epitope on its surface, because if it did that spike protein couldn't work any more. So, while some of the antibodies and T cell clones made against earlier versions of the virus, or against the vaccines may not be effective, there will be others, which will remain effective. If half, or two-thirds, or whatever it is, of the immune response is not going to be effective, and you're left with the residual half, then the more boosted that is the better."

No unusual symptoms have yet been associated with the variant and, as with other variants, some individuals are asymptomatic.

Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, said she had first encountered the variant in patients who had fatigue, aches and pains, but no cough or change in sense of smell or taste.

Fergus Walsh wrote, 'South Africa has a young population and it is encouraging that doctors there are reporting that Omicron is causing mild symptoms with no increase in hospital admissions. But we need to see what happens when the variant moves into older age groups who are the most vulnerable to Covid.' However the World Health Organization in an update on the variant stated 'Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalization in South Africa', even if it has not been determined that this is attributed to this specific variant.

Prevention

As with other variants, the WHO recommended that people continue to keep enclosed spaces well ventilated, avoid crowding and close contact, wear well-fitting masks, clean hands frequently, and get vaccinated.

On 26 November, BioNTech said it would know in two weeks whether the current vaccine is effective against the variant and that an updated vaccine can be shipped in 100 days if necessary. AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson were also studying the variant's impact on the effectiveness of their vaccines. On 29 November, Sinovac said it can quickly mass-produce an inactivated vaccine against the variant and that it is monitoring studies and collecting samples of the variant to determine if a new vaccine is needed. The Gamaleya Institute said that Sputnik Light should be effective against the variant, that it would begin adapting Sputnik V, and that a modified version could be ready for mass production in 45 days.

WHO asked nations to do the following:

'Enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants. Submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID. Report initial cases/clusters associated with virus-of-concern infection to WHO through the IHR mechanism. Where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the virus of concern on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization, or other relevant characteristics.' Treatment

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