The WHO issued stern warnings Wednesday on the dangers of
vaccination apathy and the European Union put mandatory jabs on the table as
the United States registered its first case of the fast-spreading Omicron
strain of the coronavirus.
The new variant, first reported to the World Health
Organization by South Africa a week ago, has quickly popped up across
continents, darkening economic forecasts and deepening fears of another
difficult winter in the northern hemisphere.
“Globally, we have a toxic mix of low vaccine coverage,
and very low testing — a recipe for breeding and amplifying variants,”
said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, reminding the world that the Delta
variant “accounts for almost all cases”.
“We need to use the tools we already have to prevent
transmission and save lives from Delta. And if we do that, we will also prevent
transmission and save lives from Omicron.”
The WHO says it could take several weeks to understand
whether or not Omicron is more transmissible, and whether it results in more
severe disease — as well as how effective current treatments and vaccines are against
Its detection and spread, however, have highlighted that the
now nearly two-year global fight against Covid-19 is far from over.
In Brussels, European Commission President Ursula von der
Leyen said it was “understandable and appropriate” to discuss how to
“encourage and potentially think about mandatory vaccination” in the
bloc — although only individual member states can impose such mandates.
Austria has already said it will make Covid jabs compulsory
next February, Germany is considering a similar approach, and Greece said
Tuesday it would mandate vaccines for over-60s.
– First US case –
The United States, officially the world’s hardest-hit
country, announced it had detected its first Omicron case: a fully vaccinated
traveller from South Africa who is recovering from mild symptoms.
Top American infectious diseases specialist Anthony Fauci
stressed that fully vaccinated adults should seek a booster when eligible to
give themselves the best possible protection.
“Our experience with variants such as the Delta variant
is that even though the vaccine isn’t specifically targeted to the Delta
variant, when you get a high enough level of an immune response, you get
spillover protection,” he said.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also recorded their
first cases of Omicron, making the Gulf the latest region to be affected.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
meanwhile recommended that children aged five to 11 who are at risk of severe
Covid should be considered a “priority group” for vaccination.
UN chief slams travel bans
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development
warned Omicron threatens the world’s recovery and lowered growth estimates for
2021 from 5.7 percent to 5.6 percent.
Omicron has prompted governments around the globe to
reimpose travel restrictions, mostly targeting southern Africa.
A day after suspending new flight bookings into the country,
Japan on Thursday eased the blanket move to help citizens return.
But there is growing criticism of such bans.
On Wednesday, UN Secretary Guterres Antonio Guterres called
them “deeply unfair and punitive” as well as “ineffective”.
Rising infection rates have already seen some European
governments reintroduce mandatory mask-wearing, social-distancing measures,
curfews or lockdowns in a desperate attempt to limit hospitalisations, leaving
businesses fearing another grim Christmas.
Portugal, which has Europe’s highest vaccination rate,
reintroduced mask mandates in indoor settings, and aims to administer a third
Covid jab to almost one-fifth of its population by the end of the year.
From Wednesday, every adult in Italy became eligible for a
Covid booster shot, previously only open to those aged over 40.
Despite new restrictions recently introduced in Denmark, the
country on Wednesday registered a record number of new Covid cases with 5,120
infections in the last 24 hours.
Even as governments acted unilaterally in imposing travel
restrictions, WHO member states came together in Geneva to work on an
international accord on handling the next pandemic.
An intergovernmental negotiating body will be established to
reach an agreement on responding to future pandemics with a first meeting due
before March 1, 2022.
While the European summer of fleeting Covid freedoms may be
over, in the southern hemisphere, Pacific nation Fiji ended 615 days of
international isolation on Wednesday and reopened to tourists.
Traditional dancers in grass skirts welcomed waving
holidaymakers from Sydney, the first of an expected flood of desperately needed
tourists in the coming weeks.