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  29 Nov 2021, 10:10
Update : 29 Nov 2021, 10:23

G7 ministers meet as new Covid strain spreads around the globe

  LONDON, Nov 29, 2021 (BSS/AFP) - G7 health ministers were to hold an
emergency meeting Monday on the new Omicron Covid-19 strain spreading the
globe and forcing border closures, as experts race to understand what the
variant means for the fight to end the pandemic.

  The meeting was called by G7 chair Britain, which is among a steadily
growing number of countries detecting cases of the heavily mutated new
strain.

  Omicron, first discovered in southern Africa, represents a fresh challenge
to global efforts to battle the pandemic. Several countries have already re-
imposed restrictions many had hoped were a thing of the past.

  "We know we are now in a race against time," said European Commission chief
Ursula von der Leyen. Vaccine manufacturers needed two to three weeks "to get
a full picture of the quality of the mutations", she added.

  A long list of countries has already imposed travel restrictions on
southern Africa, including key travel hub Qatar, as well as the United
States, Britain, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Netherlands.

  Angola became the first southern African country to suspend all flights
from its regional neighbours Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.

  South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday called on countries to
lift the travel bans "before any further damage is done to our economies".

  Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera accused Western countries of
"Afrophobia" for shutting their borders.

  The head of the World Health Organization in Africa also urged countries to
follow the science rather than impose flight bans in a bid to contain the new
Covid strain.

  "With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world,
putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,"
said WHO regional director Matshidiso Moeti.

  - Race to determine threat level -

  Dutch health authorities said they had identified at least 13 cases of
Omicron among 61 quarantined passengers who tested positive for coronavirus
after arriving from South Africa.

  Border police there announced Sunday they had arrested a couple on a plane
at Schiphol Airport after they fled a hotel where the passengers were being
quarantined.

  Despite the new threat, tens of thousands rallied in Austria to protest the
government's introduction of compulsory vaccination -- the first EU country
to do so.

  Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg said it was "a minor interference"
compared to the alternative for a country with one of the lowest vaccination
rates in Western Europe.

  With many European nations, including Germany and France, already re-
introducing restrictions to counter surges in infections, Swiss voters firmly
backed a proposed Covid pass law in a referendum Sunday.

  In Britain, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said new Covid rules will be
enforced from Tuesday, including mandatory mask-wearing in shops and on
public transport in England, and tighter restrictions on passengers arriving
from abroad.

  As scientists try to determine the level of threat posed by the new strain,
one South African doctor said dozens of her patients suspected of having the
Omicron variant had only shown mild symptoms, such as fatigue.

  Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, told AFP
she had seen 30 patients over the past 10 days who tested positive for Covid-
19 and who all fully recovered without hospitalisation.

  Senior US government scientist Anthony Fauci said he "continues to believe
that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against
severe cases of Covid", during a briefing on the new variant with President
Joe Biden on Sunday.

  - Israel raises 'red flag' -

  Israel announced some of the strictest curbs, closing the borders to all
foreigners -- just four weeks after re-opening to tourists following a
prolonged Covid-driven closure.

  "We are raising a red flag," Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said.

  But the new strain has already slipped through the net and has now been
found everywhere from the Netherlands to the UK, Botswana, Hong Kong and
Australia.

  Canada became the latest country to announce its first detected cases
Sunday in two people who had travelled to Nigeria.

  Scientists in South Africa said they had last week detected the new variant
with a far greater number of mutations than in the cases of earlier strains
like Beta or Delta -- the latter of which dented the global recovery and sent
millions worldwide back into lockdown.

  The prestigious Bambino Gesu hospital in Rome produced the first "image" of
the new strain and confirmed there were many more mutations than seen in the
Delta variant. But that does not mean it is more dangerous, the researchers
said.

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