TOKYO (AP) – Japan continued its aggressive stance against the novel coronavirus variant on Wednesday, asking international airlines to stop accepting new bookings on all flights arriving in the country by the end of December, due to further tightening of already tight border controls.
The Transport Department said the request is an extreme precautionary measure amid growing concerns about the proliferation of a new version of the omicron. The actions of the world’s third-largest economy, coupled with the recent return to bans on foreign tourists, are among the strictest in the world and more in line with closed neighbor China than some other democracies in the region. This happens when scientists work feverishly to determine how dangerous the omicron is.
Those who have already made reservations will not be hurt, although flights may be canceled if there are not enough passengers, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism said. Japan is a major hub for flights to and from Asia, and its immense economic importance means that its actions could have wider impact. Transit flights will not be affected.
The decision came when Japan confirmed a second case of the omicron variant in a man who had arrived from Peru, a day after it reported its first case to a Namibian diplomat.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious as suspected by some health authorities, whether it is causing more severe illness, and whether it might interfere with the administration of the vaccine.
The US is moving to tighten testing requirements for international arrivals, including both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
The exact test logs were still being finalized ahead of President Joe Biden’s scheduled speech on Thursday. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement that they are working to require all U.S. air travelers to be tested for COVID-19 during the day before boarding a flight. Currently, fully vaccinated individuals can take the test within three days of planting.
Japan has banned all foreign visitors since Tuesday as an extreme precaution against the new option. The ban will roughly last until the end of the year. The government also requires Japanese citizens arriving in the country to be quarantined for up to 14 days.
The World Health Organization warned on Monday that the global risk associated with the omicron variant is “very high” based on early evidence, saying it could lead to surges with “serious consequences.”
Recent results show that the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe about a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.
The Netherlands Institute of Public Health RIVM found that patient samples dated November 19 and 23 contained this variant. On November 24, South African authorities informed the World Health Organization about the existence of a highly mutated virus.
This indicates that Oomicron in the Netherlands had more options than previously thought.
This discovery illustrates the complexity of containing the virus in the era of airliners and economic globalization. And that once again left the world between hopes of a return to normal and fears that the worst was yet to come.
The pandemic has repeatedly shown that the virus “is spreading rapidly through our globalized, interconnected world,” said Dr. Albert Co, an infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. Until the vaccination campaign reaches all countries, “we will find ourselves in this situation again and again.”
Brazil, which has recorded a staggering number of deaths from COVID-19, is staggering to report that it has discovered the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa, the first known cases of omicron in Latin America. The travelers were screened on November 25, authorities said.
France has reported its first case on the vast island area of Réunion in the Indian Ocean. Authorities said the patient was a man who returned to Reunion from South Africa and Mozambique on 20 November.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US expert on infectious diseases, said that much more will be known about the omicron in the next few weeks and “we will have a much clearer picture of the challenges ahead.”
In the meantime, a WHO spokesman warned that, given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, infection could soon spike in parts of southern Africa.
“There is a possibility that we will indeed see a serious doubling or tripling of cases as we move forward or as the week progresses,” said Dr Niki Gumede-Moelezi, WHO regional virologist.
Cases began to rise rapidly in mid-November in South Africa, where there are currently about 3,000 confirmed new infections per day.
Other countries with confirmed cases include the UK, 11 European Union countries, Australia, Canada and Israel. American disease trackers said the omicron may already be in the United States and likely to be found soon.
“I’m looking forward to it from day to day,” said Scott Becker of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We expect him to be here.”
Although this variant was first identified by South African researchers, it is unclear where and when it originated, information that may help shed light on how quickly it is spreading.
The Dutch announcement on Tuesday could define this timetable.
The Netherlands previously said it had spotted the option among passengers arriving from South Africa on Friday, the same day the Netherlands and other EU members began imposing flight bans and other restrictions in southern Africa. But the recently identified cases happened even earlier.
NOS, the Dutch public broadcaster, reported that one of the two omicron samples came from a person who had traveled to southern Africa.
Many health officials have tried to allay fears by insisting that vaccines remain the best protection and that the world must redouble its efforts to get vaccinated in all parts of the globe.
After COVID-19 caused the Summer Games to be postponed by one year, Olympic organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said the omicron “will definitely create certain problems in terms of prevention and control.”
The global markets hesitate for every medical news, be it worrying or hopeful. Wall Street stocks tumbled on fears of the virus as well as ongoing efforts by the Federal Reserve to strengthen markets.
Some analysts believe that a serious economic downturn is likely to be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also believe that a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been sharply delayed.
On Wednesday, Japan began offering booster vaccines for the coronavirus to healthcare workers amid growing concerns over the new option.
The introduction of vaccination in Japan started slowly, but has increased dramatically since the end of May, and now about 77% of the population is fully vaccinated – the main reason, according to experts, is the steady slowdown in the rate of infection in Japan since September.
AP journalists from around the world contributed to this report.