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South Africa travel ban kicks in but flights continue for Americans

President Biden’s travel ban for eight Southern African countries kicked in on Monday morning in fear of the new super mutant COVID variant Omicron, but flights will continue to arrive with US citizens and green-card holders on board. 

Omicron was detected last week in South Africa and now has the world on edge, with scientists rushing to test the variant which they fear may be more transmissible than any others previously seen, and could be vaccine-resistant. 

The UK, Europe, US and Israel all banned travel for tourists last week to try to stop the variant from arriving, but it has already been detected in many of those countries. 

So far, there have not been any detected cases in America but the variant has been detected in Canada. That case is believed to have come from Nigeria, one of the countries that travel has not been banned from. 

A United Airlines direct flight from Johannesburg arrived at Newark Airport on Monday morning shortly after 7am, the first to arrive since the ban took hold. Both Delta and United – which is the only airline to  operate a direct route – have vowed to carry on with the flights. 

President Biden is expected to address the nation at 11.45am EST today. It’s unclear if he will announce any other kind of restrictions.  

His former adviser Andrew Slavitt, is calling on him to scrap border closures and travel bans – which he says have proven to be ineffective – and instead to focus on vaccinating more of Africa, where vaccine rates are low. 

The US Travel Association is also urging Biden to ‘revisit’ the policy which they say will do nothing to keep variant out, and only harm the industry. 

Despite Omicron driving an increase in cases in South Africa and Botswana, where it was first found, it is yet to have an effect on hospitalizations or deaths in any of the countries where it has been found.  

President Biden, pictured boarding Air Force One at Nantucket Memorial Airport on Sunday, will address the nation on Omicron at 11.45am EST

Passengers from a United Airlines flight from Johannesburg are shown arriving at Newark airport yesterday morning, the day before the ban on tourist travel took effect. The flights will continue but only for American citizens and US green card holders

Passengers from a United Airlines flight from Johannesburg are shown arriving at Newark airport yesterday morning, the day before the ban on tourist travel took effect. The flights will continue but only for American citizens and US green card holders

The United flight from Johannesburg, pictured on Sunday morning. The nightly flight will continue, but only for US citizens

The United flight from Johannesburg, pictured on Sunday morning. The nightly flight will continue, but only for US citizens 

Omicron has not yet been detected in the US but it is in Canada, several European countries, South Africa, Botswana and Australia

Omicron has not yet been detected in the US but it is in Canada, several European countries, South Africa, Botswana and Australia 

Slavitt tweeted last week, when Omicron was first detected: ‘Banning travel hasn’t seemed to be anything close to a panacea. And it punishes countries and their economies who make and report discoveries. 

‘So much less is known than will be speculated. What seems clear is that vaccinating the globe & pockets of the US that are still unvaccinated remain the priority. And masks, portable air filters, staying outdoors, and other tools remain our friends should cases rise.’ 

Earlier on Monday, the WHO called the variant one of ‘very high risk’ but said it should be tackled with vaccines instead of lockdowns, which should only be reintroduced as a ‘last resort’. 

‘Omicron has an unprecedented number of mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,’ the WHO said, amid fears the new variant is much more infectious than previous strains including Delta. ‘The overall global risk related to the new variant …is assessed as very high.’

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, sounded the alarm at the start of an assembly of health ministers as he pressed leaders to negotiate a legally-binding treaty on how future pandemics will be managed.

‘The emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is,’ Tedros said. ‘Omicron demonstrates just why the world needs a new accord on pandemics: our current system disincentivizes countries from alerting others to threats that will inevitably land on their shores.’ 

Calling for a mixture of vaccines and other measures to end the pandemic, he told a virtual summit in Geneva that lockdowns should only be used as ‘a last resort in the most-extreme circumstances.’

‘We [call for] a tailored and comprehensive package of measures that strike a balance between protecting the rights, freedoms and livelihoods of individuals, while protecting the health and safety of the most vulnerable members of communities. Ending this pandemic is not about vaccines “or…”, it is about vaccines “and…”.’

GERMAN MEDICS SAY OMICRON COULD BE GOOD NEWS

The new Covid variant Omicron could turn out to be a ‘Christmas gift’ if it causes milder illness, a German health expert said today after South African doctors said the strain appears to cause less severe symptoms.  

Medics in South Africa said the strain is causing mild symptoms — such as a headache and tiredness — than previous versions of the virus and hasn’t led to a single hospitalisation or death. 

Professor Karl Lauterbach, a clinical epidemiologist who is in the running to be Germany’s next health minister, said the early reports means Omicron could be a Christmas gift and may even speed up the end of the pandemic. 

He suggested that it has so many mutations — 32 on the spike protein alone, twice as many as Delta — which could mean it is optimised to infect and be less lethal, in line with how most respiratory viruses evolve. 

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, said the theory ‘may prove to be true’ but said that high levels of previous infection and vaccination may be offering protection against the strain.

This would also be a positive sign, because it shows that the highly-mutated variant is not completely unrecognisable to the immune system of Covid survivors or vaccines. 

Scientists have long-warned the coronavirus is unlikely to ever be eradicated but will instead transition into a milder cold-like virus. 

However, experts warned today that they need at least two weeks to determine what impact the Omicron variant will have, due to the time it takes for someone to become seriously unwell after catching the strain.

Scientists also need at least two weeks to work out whether Omicron’s worrying mutations could make it more infectious than Delta and resistant to vaccines will translate in the real world.

And most cases have so far been in younger people, who experience milder symptoms from the virus compared to older adults.  

Police in the Netherlands arrested a couple who broke out of a quarantine hotel for suspected Omicron cases on Sunday and boarded a flight out of the country before being stopped.

Border police said they arrested a husband and wife on a plane at Schiphol Airport that was bound for Spain after they ran from a hotel where Covid-19 positive passengers from South Africa were being quarantined.

‘The arrests took place as the plane was about to take off,’ the Marechaussee police force said on Twitter, adding that the pair had been handed over to the public health authority.

Omicron, which was first identified in South Africa but is thought to have originated in Botswana, is the most-mutated form of Covid yet found and has been declared a ‘variant of concern’ by the WHO because early data suggests it is more-infectious than the Delta strain and may have an increased ability to infect vaccinated people.

But data is limited to just a few dozen cases and huge question marks remain, including whether Omicron causes more serious disease as well as being more infectious. Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who treated the first known cases, has said that so-far the symptoms seem milder than the Delta variant. 

The most-common symptoms of Omicron are extreme fatigue, increased heart-rate and a scratchy throat, she said. None of the patients she has treated for the variant have become sick enough to require hospital treatment.

Britain, the current head of the G7 presidency, has called a meeting of health ministers due to take place today to discuss the potential problems that Omicron poses. 

Speaking virtually at a separate summit in Geneva today, Dr Tedros warned that the world ‘remains in the grip of pestilence’ and that more action is needed globally to eradicate Covid.

‘We shouldn’t need another wake-up call,’ he told delegates. ‘We should all be wide awake to the threat of this virus. But Omicron’s emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we’re done with Covid-19, it is not done with us.’

He again repeated calls for vaccines to be shared with poorer countries, saying leaders should make it their target to vaccinate 50 per cent of the global population before the end of the year and 70 per cent of the population by mid-2022.

‘Nobody is safe, until everybody is safe,’ he added. 

Last week, President Biden announced he was closing the border to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. 

Travel from South Africa to the US only resumed at the start of November after nearly 18 months. 

The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body's immune system struggles to recognise it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body's cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness

The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system struggles to recognise it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness 

WHO director Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus (pictured) called for a global treaty on how to deal with future pandemics as the health body warned Omicron poses a ‘very high’ risk to the global Covid recovery

COVID cases are rising in the US again, deaths are goin down and experts say it is only affecting unvaccinated people

COVID cases are rising in the US again, deaths are goin down and experts say it is only affecting unvaccinated people 

Medics in South Africa said the strain is causing mild symptoms — such as a headache and tiredness — than previous versions of the virus and hasn’t led to a single hospitalization or death. 

Professor Karl Lauterbach, a clinical epidemiologist who is in the running to be Germany’s next health minister, said the early reports means Omicron could be a Christmas gift and may even speed up the end of the pandemic. 

He suggested that it has so many mutations — 32 on the spike protein alone, twice as many as Delta — which could mean it is optimized to infect and be less lethal, in line with how most respiratory viruses evolve. 

Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, said the theory ‘may prove to be true’ but said that high levels of previous infection and vaccination may be offering protection against the strain.

This would also be a positive sign, because it shows that the highly-mutated variant is not completely unrecognizable to the immune system of COVID survivors or vaccines. 

Scientists have long-warned the coronavirus is unlikely to ever be eradicated but will instead transition into a milder cold-like virus. 

However, experts warned today that they need at least two weeks to determine what impact the Omicron variant will have, due to the time it takes for someone to become seriously unwell after catching the strain.

Scientists also need at least two weeks to work out whether Omicron’s worrying mutations could make it more infectious than Delta and resistant to vaccines will translate in the real world.

And most cases have so far been in younger people, who experience milder symptoms from the virus compared to older adults. 

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