Despite Omicron surge, South Africa so far sees mild symptoms
Germany has decided to bar the unvaccinated from all but the most essential businesses, and the United States is due to announce further travel curbs as countries around the globe scramble to keep out the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said the variant showed that the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic could be around for “some time”, as countries including the United States, India and France reported their first cases.
In an interview with Reuters, Yellen said she hoped the pandemic would not completely stifle economic activity, adding that the US stimulus at the start of the pandemic had helped fuel a very strong recovery.
The new measures agreed in Germany focus on the unvaccinated, who will only be allowed in essential businesses such as grocery stores and pharmacies, while legislation to make vaccination mandatory will be drafted next year.
“We have understood that the situation is very serious and that we want to take further measures in addition to those already taken,” Chancellor Angela Merkel told a news conference.
A nationwide vaccination mandate could take effect from February 2022 after it is debated in the Bundestag and after guidance from Germany’s Ethics Council, she said.
Eager to avoid derailing a recovery of Europe’s biggest economy, Germany kept businesses open to the almost 69% of the population that is fully vaccinated as well as those with proof of having recovered from the virus.
Much remains unknown about Omicron, which was first detected in southern Africa last month and has been spotted in at least two dozen countries, just as parts of Europe were already grappling with a wave of infections of the Delta variant.
However, the EU’s public health agency said Omicron could be responsible for more than half of all Covid-19 infections in Europe within months, lending weight to preliminary information about its high transmissibility.
In the US, the Biden administration was expected to announce steps included extending requirements for travellers to wear masks through mid-March.
By early next week the United States will require inbound international travellers to be tested for Covid-19 within a day of departure, regardless of vaccination status.
The first known US case, announced late on Wednesday, was a fully vaccinated person in California who had travelled to South Africa.
The two French cases, in the greater Paris region and in eastern France, were passengers arriving respectively from Nigeria and South Africa.
Russia has imposed a two-week quarantine for travellers from some African countries including South Africa, the Interfax news agency said, quoting a senior official.
In the Netherlands, health authorities called for pre-flight Covid-19 tests for all travel from outside the European Union, after it turned out that most of the passengers who tested positive after arriving on two flights from South Africa on November 26 had been vaccinated.
In France, the country’s top scientific adviser, Jean-Francois Delfraissy, said the “true enemy” for now was still the more familiar Delta variant of the virus, spreading in a fifth wave.
Omicron is fuelling a steep surge in infections in South Africa but relatively few people are being hospitalised, experts said yesterday, as patients so far reported mild symptoms.
The country recorded 11,535 new cases yesterday, mostly in the epicentre Gauteng, the province home to the biggest city Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.
That’s five times as many cases as were reported just one week ago, when South African scientists alerted the world to the new variant.
Three-quarters of new cases in South Africa are now Omicron.
However, deaths and hospitalisations so far are rising at a much lower rate.