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Emerging Omicron Coronavirus Variant Has Officials Worldwide on the Defensive

Image for article titled Emerging Omicron Coronavirus Variant Has Officials Worldwide on the Defensive

Photo: Jane Barlow – WPA Pool (Getty Images)

Authorities worldwide have started taking steps to contain the spread of the new coronavirus variant Omicron as the holiday season enters full swing. On Friday, the World Health Organization recognized the heavily mutated coronavirus variant, which was first identified in South Africa, as a “variant of concern” due to preliminary evidence that it may be more contagious and resistant to inoculation than previous strains.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency on Friday amid mounting concerns about the Omicron variant and surging coronavirus infection rates in the state due to the already circulating Delta variant. She said that while the Omicron variant hasn’t been identified in the state yet, this executive order greenlights the New York health department to limit non-essential, non-urgent procedures at hospitals, expand hospital capacity, and acquire pandemic-fighting supplies, which should help avert staffing and equipment shortages.

“We continue to see warning signs of spikes this upcoming winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it’s coming,” Hochul said in a press statement.

The order goes into effect on December 3 and will be reassessed on January 15 based on the latest covid-19 data. President Joe Biden has also announced a travel ban from eight southern African countries set to take effect Monday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says no cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the United States so far. It will continue to monitor the situation and has been collaborating with South African authorities to track its spread. If the variant does emerge in the U.S., “We expect Omicron to be identified quickly,” the agency said Friday.

Across the pond, cases of the new Omicron variant were detected in the U.K., Germany, and Italy on Saturday, prompting a wave of travel bans across Europe, Reuters reports. The variant was previously detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel, and Hong Kong.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday that two cases have been identified in the U.K. so far. Health minister Sajid Javid confirmed to Reuters that these cases were linked to each other and connected to travel to Southern Africa.

To slow the spread, Johnson has announced more stringent mask mandates and self-isolation requirements for incoming travelers. Face masks must now be worn in retail settings and on public transport in the U.K., and arrivals from all countries will be required to self-isolate until they test negative for the virus.

“We need to buy time for our scientists to understand exactly what we are dealing with,” he said in a press statement.

Johnson, Hochul, Biden, and other authorities worldwide are urging citizens to get the vaccine if they haven’t already. Last week, the CDC expanded eligibility for the covid-19 booster shot to all adults who received a Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccine at least six months ago. Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna anticipate data to become available within the next few weeks regarding the effectiveness of their respective vaccines against the Omicron variant, Reuters reports. Pfizer and BioNTech told the outlet it could produce a new vaccine tailored to the Omicron variant and have doses shipped out in approximately 100 days. Moderna has also said it’s working on a booster tailored to the new variant.