GENEVA — The World Health Organization says “blanket travel bans” will not prevent the spread of a new coronavirus variant, while acknowledging that countries could order quarantines and take screening measures like testing travelers before or after arrival, or both.
The updated travel guidance during the COVID-19 pandemic comes as dozens of countries have barred flights from southern African countries where the omicron variant was brought to international attention last week. WHO says the move unfairly punishes Botswana and South Africa for doing the right thing and being transparent about the emergence of a new variant.
Some health experts have countered that travel restrictions are effective, and many countries have bucked with WHO’s traditional recommendation against travel bans. WHO said that as of Sunday, 56 countries were reportedly implementing travel measures aimed at curbing the spread of omicron.
“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” WHO said, while acknowledging the use of screening measures to help stem the spread of omicron.
In its statement, WHO said that so far, current PCR tests continue to be effective in detecting the variant.
The U.N. health agency also said “essential travel” for emergencies, humanitarian missions and transport of essential supplies “should continue to be prioritized.”
MORE ON THE PANDEMIC:
— New information shows omicron spread wider earlier than thought
— The EU’s medical agency says it will take two weeks to have an indication whether the current COVID-19 vaccines will be able to deal with the new omicron variant
— U.S. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell says new COVID-19 variant could slow the economy and hiring, while also raising uncertainty about inflation.
— Face masks are again mandatory in England in shops and on public transport due to the new variant
— See all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic
MADRID — Health authorities in the Spanish capital have confirmed a second case of the omicron variant in a 61-year-old woman who had returned from a trip to South Africa on Monday.
The woman, who shows no COVID-19 compatible symptoms and was double-vaccinated, had arrived in a different flight to the first case of omicron recorded in Spain, a 51-year-old man with two doses of coronavirus vaccine who traveled over the weekend.
Both patients remain in isolation, the Madrid region’s health department said Tuesday.
Authorities in northeastern Catalonia said they couldn’t establish yet if two suspected cases of coronavirus were related to the new variant, saying the sequencing of samples would not likely be conclusive until Friday.
BUCHAREST, Romania — A Romanian state-owned aircraft brought 70 passengers from South Africa to Bucharest after concerns about the omicron variant of the coronavirus led to flight cancellations that left people stranded.
Romania’s foreign ministry said 46 of the passengers on the flight that landed Tuesday afternoon were Romanians and included a professional Romanian rugby team.
“European solidarity is a tangible reality,” Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu wrote online after the aircraft landed, noting that 18 EU citizens not from Romania were on the flight.
Seven Romanian citizens in Cape Town failed to board the repatriation flight due to logistical reasons or lack of a PCR test, authorities said.
The national champion rugby team, from Baia Mare in northern Romania, said authorities had undertaken “sustained efforts” to repatriate 31 team members who had been participating in a tournament in Bloemfontein, South Africa.
Romanian authorities said Tuesday that 72 Romanian citizens stranded in Morocco after the North African country canceled almost all flights in response to the omicron variant are to be flown home later this week.
LISBON, Portugal — All air passengers coming to Portugal must board their planes with a negative coronavirus test if they want to enter the country beginning on Wednesday, when Portugal enacts its second state of emergency this year as it tries to stop a surge in new infections, authorities said Tuesday.
The director of Lisbon’s airport, Rui Alves, told reporters that travelers will be given different wristbands depending on where their trip originated to ease their identification during the airport screening process. The new entry rules were drafted before the first cases of the omicron variant were reported in the country in the last few days.
Those who fail to show a negative test face fines ranging from 300 to 800 euros ($340 to $910). Airlines that transport untested passengers could also be fined 20,000 euros ($22,600) per person and, if they persist, could even lose their license.
PCR or antigen test results will be required for those arriving by land from outside of the European Union and from most EU countries considered at high or medium-high risk.
RIGA, Latvia — U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken had nothing but praise for South Africa on how it has alerted the world to the new omicron variant of COVID-19.
“I really want to applaud and express gratitude to South Africa and its government for its extraordinary transparency and also the very important work it did in detecting this new variant and in making it known to the world,” he said. “That’s exactly I think, a model of responsibility that South Africa has exhibited that we would hope everyone in the world would show, because we are all in this together.”
Blinken spoke Tuesday at a NATO foreign ministers meeting in Riga, Latvia.
LONDON — New measures to combat the new omicron variant of coronavirus took effect in England on Tuesday, with face coverings again compulsory in shops and on public transportation, as the government said it would offer all adults a booster dose of vaccine within two months to bolster the nation’s immunity.
From Tuesday morning, all travelers returning to the U.K. must also take a PCR test and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.
The reintroduction of mandatory face masks brings England closer in line with the rest of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — which had kept some restrictions in place after England lifted all mandatory measures in the summer.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the new measures will “buy us time in the face” of the new variant. He said that while many people felt an understandable “sense of exhaustion” at the prospect of renewed restrictions, the U.K.’s position is “immeasurably better than it was a year ago.”
The government said Tuesday that 22 cases of the omicron variant have been identified, a number that is expected to rise.
ATHENS — Residents in Greece over 60 years old will have to undergo mandatory vaccinations against coronavirus or face monthly 100-euro ($114) fines beginning next year, the prime minister announced Tuesday, declaring the country’s first general inoculation mandate.
The Greek government decided upon the measure in response to a surge in new daily infections and the emergence of the omicron variant. It will take effect on Jan. 16 and the fines will be added to tax bills, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said in a televised statement.
Greece’s overall COVID-19 death toll exceeded 18,000 this week with confirmed new infections at high levels. Roughly a quarter of the country’s adult population remains unvaccinated.
Vaccination mandates were introduced over the summer for health care workers and fire service rescuers in Greece, with those failing to comply being suspended from their jobs indefinitely without pay.
The government has ruled out imposing new lockdowns but says it is targeting the elderly with tougher restrictions to protect the public health service as ICU occupancy is near capacity nationwide.
BERLIN — Germany’s national and state leaders will decide Thursday on new measures to tackle a sharp rise in coronavirus infections, officials said after the country’s outgoing and incoming chancellors conferred with governors.
The measures are likely to include restrictions on shopping for unvaccinated people and limiting crowds at soccer matches, along with possible moves toward a vaccine mandate for all.
Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and her designated successor, Olaf Scholz, held talks with Germany’s 16 state governors on Tuesday, hours after the country’s top court strengthened politicians’ hand by rejecting complaints against curfews and other restrictions imposed earlier this year.
Many states have tightened rules of their own accord, but experts and politicians have called for more coordinated national action as infection rates hit new highs.
MOSCOW — Russian authorities on Tuesday tightened coronavirus restrictions because of the omicron variant, even though the country has yet to report its first confirmed case.
Anna Popova, head of Russia’s public health agency Rospotrebnadzor, announced Tuesday that travelers arriving from countries where the risk of contracting the omicron variant of coronavirus is high will have to quarantine for two weeks. She didn’t specify which countries were on the list.
Popova also said that results of PCR tests for coronavirus, used in many Russian regions to gain access to public places, will remain valid for only 48 hours instead of 72 hours.
“The new variant indeed elicits serious concerns and demands immediate, comprehensive study,” Popova said.
GENEVA — The Swiss government says travelers arriving from Canada, Japan, Niger and Portugal will be required starting Wednesday to present both a negative COVID-19 test and undergo a 10-day quarantine.
The new measures were announced on Tuesday after cases of the newly identified coronavirus variant omicron turned up in those countries.
On Friday, the Swiss government initiated a similar requirement for travelers from Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, and banned all flights from seven countries in southern Africa where cases of the variant were first detected.
WASHINGTON — Drugmaker Regeneron says that its COVID-19 antibody cocktail may be less effective against the omicron variant, though the company says more testing is needed to gauge the effect.
Regeneron’s cocktail is one of three antibody treatments that have become the standard U.S. treatments for COVID-19 patients who do not yet require hospitalization. The federal government has purchased and distributed millions of doses of the drugs, which are infused or injected by health professionals.
Because of mutations in the omicron variant, health authorities have warned that some vaccines and antibodies may lose their potency.
Regeneron says it is doing more analysis to define the variant’s impact on its drug’s effectiveness.
The company also says it is testing alternate antibodies that may be more effective against the new variant.
MADRID — Spain’s government has banned flights connecting air routes from South Africa and six neighboring countries to the European country due to fears of the new omicron coronavirus variant.
The order affects any connecting flights from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. Spain has no direct flights to southern Africa. The order will take effect on Thursday.
Spanish health authorities have reported one confirmed case of the omicron strain in a 51-year-old man who flew from South Africa to Madrid via Amsterdam. He was fully vaccinated and is showing mild symptoms. Three more possible cases are under investigation.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, though the World Health Organization warned that the global risk from the variant is “very high” and early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.
RIGA, Latvia — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, which was discovered in South Africa, underscores the point that “none of us will be fully safe until everyone is.”
Speaking in Riga, Latvia, during a two-day meeting of the NATO foreign ministers, Blinken also noted “a real disparity” between vaccinations in Africa and the United States and Europe.
“We have vaccination rates in the United States, in Europe of 50, 60, 70%, depending on exactly who you’re counting. And in Africa, it’s more like 14, 15% or less.”
He noted that sometimes the supply of vaccines may actually be sufficient to meet the needs, but the ability to get shots in arms is lacking.
He said the United States was working on a solution that “brings the private sector into the game to help solve these last-mile problems of getting shots and arms. We’re putting that into into motion now.”
BRUSSELS — The omicron variant was already in the Netherlands when South Africa alerted the World Health Organization about it last week, Dutch health authorities said Tuesday, adding to fear and confusion over the new version of the coronavirus.
The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute found omicron in samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23. The WHO said South Africa first reported the the variant to the U.N. healthy agency on Nov. 24.
It remains unclear where or when the variant first emerged — but that hasn’t stopped nations from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from southern Africa.
Much is still not known about the variant — though the WHO warned that the global risk from the variant is “very high” and early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.