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U.S. tightens COVID-19 travel rules as countries race to quell Omicron threat

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Air travellers to the United States (U.S.) will face tougher Coronavirus (COVID-19) testing rules as several countries moved to seal-off their borders amid growing uncertainty around the virulence of the Omicron variant.

The Omicron variant has the ability to dodge existing vaccines.

In Asia-Pacific, Hong Kong and Japan said they would expand travel curbs, while Australia was bracing for more Omicron cases after at least two people visited several locations in its biggest city while likely infectious.

In an attempt to stave off hasty global border restrictions, the World Health Organisation called on countries to apply “an evidence-informed and risk-based approach” to travel measures.

Blanket travel bans will not prevent the spread, and they “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods”, the WHO said.

More than 50 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at potentially delaying import of Omicron as of Nov. 28, the WHO added.

Investors remained on edge on Wednesday, even as financial markets came off lows plumbed a day earlier following remarks by the CEO of Moderna that raised questions about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines against Omicron.

Global health officials have since sought to offer reassurances and reiterated calls for people to get vaccinated.

“Even if the new variant becomes more widespread, the vaccines we have will continue to provide protection,” European Medicines Agency Executive Director Emer Cooke said.

Echoing remarks by vaccine maker BioNTech and scientists, Cooke said laboratory analyses should indicate over the next two weeks whether the blood of vaccinated people has sufficient antibodies to neutralise the new variant.

BioNTech’s CEO said the vaccine it makes in a partnership with Pfizer would likely offer strong protection against severe disease from Omicron.

The World Health Organisation classified Omicron as a “variant of concern,” due to the number of mutations that might help it spread or evade antibodies from prior infection or vaccination.

First reported in southern Africa a week ago, Omicron has triggered global alarm, led to travel bans, and highlighted the disparity between massive vaccination pushes in rich nations and sparse inoculation in the developing world.

Emmanuel Yashim

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