New Covid Variant 'Omicron' Triggers Global CHAOS; WHO Urges Caution...

(REUTERS) –– Global authorities reacted with alarm on Friday to a new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa, with the EU and Britain among those tightening border controls as researchers sought to find out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant.

Hours after Britain banned flights from South Africa and neighboring countries and asked travelers returning from there to quarantine, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned against hasty travel bans.

The head of the UN World Tourism Organisation called for a quick decision: "It depends on WHO recommendations, but my recommendation will be to take decisions today, not after one week, because if it continues to spread as we are expecting then it will be late and will make no sense to apply restrictions," organization chief Zurab Pololikashvili told Reuters."

One South African scientist expert labeled London's ban a symptom of "vaccine apartheid", though European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the EU also aimed to halt air travel from the region and several other countries including India, Japan, and Israel toughened curbs.

"It is now important that all of us in Europe act very swiftly, decisively, and united," von der Leyen said. "All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clearer understanding about the danger posed by this new variant."

In Washington, top U.S. infectious disease official Anthony Fauci said no decision had been made on a possible U.S. travel ban. There was no indication that the variant was in the United States, and it was unclear whether it was resistant to current vaccines, he told CNN.

The WHO said it would take weeks to determine how effective vaccines were against the variant, which was first identified this week.

The news pummelled global stocks and oil amid fears about what new bans would do to the global travel industry and already shaky economies across southern Africa.

The variant has a spike protein that is dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that vaccines are based on, the UK Health Security Agency said, raising fears about how current vaccines will fare.

"As scientists have described, this is the most significant variant they've encountered to date," British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News. In Geneva the WHO - whose experts on Friday discussed the risks that the variant, called B.1.1.529, presents - warned against travel curbs for now.

British health minister Sajid Javid said the sequence of the variant was first uploaded by Hong Kong from someone traveling from South Africa. "It is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries," Javid told lawmakers.

The head of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium said it was likely the new variant will arrive in Britain.

South African scientists suspect the sudden spike in infections in the country is linked to the new variant, but it is not clear how far it has spread beyond its borders.

Belgium identified Europe's first case, adding to those in Botswana, Israel, and Hong Kong. Denmark has sequenced all COVID-19 cases and found no sign of the new mutation, Danish health authorities said on Thursday.

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