G7 health ministers will hold an emergency meeting on Monday about the new Omicron Covid-19 variant spreading across the world and forcing border closures, as experts race to determine the level of threat posed by the new strain.
The meeting was called by G7 chair Britain, which is among a steadily growing number of countries that have detected cases of the heavily mutated new variant.
On Monday, Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, said he was barring all foreign arrivals over the new variant, after saying: “We are taking measures with a strong sense of crisis.” The ban comes into effect on Tuesday.
Kishida said Japan, where more than 76% of the population is fully vaccinated, would go ahead with plans to administer booster shots from next month, beginning with older people and health workers.
The move by Japan, which is reporting consistently low Covid-19 case numbers, comes a day after it tightened restrictions on travellers from South Africa and eight other countries, only weeks after it relaxed restrictions on some travellers from overseas.
Omicron was first discovered in South Africa and in an effort to stop transmission, countries have moved swiftly to re-impose travel restrictions. Japan’s move followed Israel, which has barred entry to all foreign nationals. The US, Britain, Brazil and Canada were among many other countries to introduce travel curbs.
The strain has so far been detected in more than a dozen countries across Europe, Africa and Asia. It has also been confirmed in North America, with cases detected in Canada.
The border closures have been criticised by South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who called on nations to lift the travel bans “before any further damage is done to our economies”.
The head of the World Health Organization in Africa also urged countries to follow the science rather than impose flight bans in a bid to contain the new Covid strain.
“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said WHO regional director Matshidiso Moeti.
As countries rushed to close their borders, scientists raced to try to understand whether the new variant was more alarming than other versions of the virus. It is not yet clear what level of protection exisiting vaccines provide or how quickly Omicron spreads.
The top US infectious disease official, Dr Anthony Fauci, told President Joe Biden on Sunday it would take about two weeks to have definitive information on Omicron.
Fauci said he believed existing vaccines were likely to provide “a degree of protection against severe cases of Covid”, and officials reiterated their recommendation for vaccinated Americans to get booster shots.
Biden was due to update the public on the new variant and the US response on Monday, the White House said.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said vaccine manufacturers needed two to three weeks “to get a full picture of the quality of the mutations”. “We know we are now in a race against time,” she said.
To combat the spread of the Omicron variant, the UK could expand its booster vaccination scheme as early as Monday. Australia is also reviewing its booster shot time frames.
The new strain has thrown a spotlight on huge disparities in vaccination rates around the globe. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7% of people in poorer countries have received their first Covid-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.
In Britain, health secretary Sajid Javid said new Covid rules will be enforced from Tuesday, including mandatory mask-wearing in shops and on public transport in England, and tighter restrictions on passengers arriving from abroad.