The Omicron variant of coronavirus has been detected in several more countries, prompting nervous governments to impose tough travel restrictions to try to keep it at bay while scientists race to establish how dangerous it might be.
Joe Biden said on Monday that the variant was “a cause for concern, not for panic”. He urged Americans to get vaccinated – including with a booster shot – as soon as they were eligible, and to wear masks in public places.
“Sooner or later we are going to see new cases of this new variant here in the United States and we’re going to have to face this new threat just as we have faced the ones that came before it,” Biden said, but he added that further travel bans were unlikely.
As cases of the variant appeared from Hong Kong to Australia and Scotland to Sweden, several countries opted for caution. Japan, which has not yet detected any Omicron infections, said on Monday it was reimposing border controls.
“We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario,” said the prime minister, Fumio Kishida. In Israel, a ban on foreign arrivals took effect overnight, while Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for a fortnight.
Australia said it would delay reopening its international borders by two weeks after reporting its first Omicron cases, and India enforced mandatory on-arrival testing for flyers from a dozen countries including South Africa and Britain.
Scientists have said it could take weeks to determine the severity of Omicron, which was first identified in southern Africa, but its emergence has already sparked a wave of responses among governments concerned that it could hinder economic recovery.
The EU is expected to hold a summit on the situation at the end of this week or early next week, according to senior officials, in an effort to hammer out a common approach on several issues, including booster vaccine doses.
Despite warnings that border closures can have limited effect and wreak havoc on lives, livelihoods and economies, countries opting to impose tighter travel curbs argued that the restrictions would provide valuable time to analyse the variant.
Prof Salim Abdool Karim, a South African infectious diseases expert, said Omicron appeared to be more transmissible, including among vaccinated people, but that it was too early to say whether it was more virulent. Several experts have suggested the new variant may be more contagious, but may produce milder symptoms.
South Africa has strongly criticised the restrictions that a growing number of countries have placed on travel from the region. President Cyril Ramaphosa said it was being unfairly punished for detecting the variant early.
In a speech on Sunday night that was well received across the domestic political spectrum, Ramaphosa described the bans imposed by the UK and other governments as “not informed by science, nor effective in preventing the spread of this variant”. He said they would only serve to “further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic”, adding that they went against promises made by G20 nations in Rome last month.
Ramaphosa announced that South Africa would not move into a stricter lockdown, but the government would explore ways to make vaccines mandatory.
“Government has set up a task team that will undertake broad consultations on making vaccination mandatory for specific activities and locations,” he said. South Africa and Botswana have fully vaccinated less than 25% of their populations.
Omicron cases in Europe had already been reported in Belgium, Denmark and the Netherlands before Portugal identified 13 infections among members of the professional football team Belenenses. One had recently travelled to South Africa.
Dutch authorities said they had found another case, bringing the country’s total to 14 – all among 61 passengers who tested positive for coronavirus out of 621 on two flights that arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday.
Poland said on Monday it would ban flights to seven African countries, extend quarantines for some travellers, and further limit numbers allowed into places such as restaurants amid concerns over the new variant.
“We must appreciate the importance of this phenomenon and the risk that a new mutation emerging poses,” said the health minister, Adam Niedzielski, adding that Omicron was “a potential game changer”.
The World Health Organization said any surge in cases could have severe consequences but noted that no deaths linked to Omicron had yet been reported. Its director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the situation remained “perilous and precarious”.
The UN agency urged its 194 member states to accelerate the vaccination of high-priority groups. “Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” it said. “The overall global risk related to the new variant … is assessed as very high.”
Some countries, however, were more relaxed. New Zealand said it would restrict travel from nine southern African nations, but insisted it would press ahead with plans to reopen internally after months of shutdown.
The prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said she did not anticipate any further restrictions and that bars, restaurants and gyms in Auckland could reopen, ending a coronavirus lockdown that began in August.
“We’ve come through the past two years of Covid in better shape than nearly anywhere in the world,” Ardern said, pointing to low death rates, a growing economy and high vaccination rates.