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GENEVA — The World Health Organization warned Monday that the global risk from the omicron variant is "very high" based on the early evidence, saying the mutated coronavirus could lead to surges with "severe consequences."
The assessment from the U.N. health agency, contained in a technical paper issued to member states, amounted to WHO's strongest, most explicit warning yet about the new version that was first identified days ago by researchers in South Africa.
It came as a widening circle of countries around the world reported cases of the variant and moved to slam their doors shut while scientists race to figure out just how dangerous it might be.
Japan announced it would bar entry of all foreign visitors, joining Israel in doing so. Morocco banned all incoming flights. Other countries, including the U.S. and members of the European Union, have moved to prohibit travelers arriving from southern Africa.
WHO said there are "considerable uncertainties" about the omicron variant. But it said preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.
"Depending on these characteristics, there could be future surges of COVID-19, which could have severe consequences, depending on a number of factors, including where surges may take place," it added. "The overall global risk ... is assessed as very high."
The WHO stressed that while scientists are hunting evidence to better understand this variant, countries should accelerate vaccinations as quickly as possible.
If the virus proves dangerous as feared, "the impact on vulnerable populations would be substantial, particularly in countries with low vaccination coverage," WHO said, noting that no deaths linked to omicron have been reported so far.
Late last week, a key WHO advisory panel highlighted, in particular, the possibility that the variant might be more likely to re-infect people who had already had a bout with COVID-19.
Spain on Monday became one of the latest countries to report its first confirmed case of the variant, detected in a traveler who returned Sunday from South Africa after making a stopover in Amsterdam.
While the vast majority of infections reported around the world have been seen in travelers arriving from abroad, cases in Portugal and Scotland have raised fears that the variant may already be spreading locally.
"Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It's not done with us," warned Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO's director-general.
Days after the variant sent a shudder through the financial world nearly two years into the pandemic that has killed over 5 million people, markets had mixed reactions Monday, with European stocks and oil prices rebounding and Wall Street opening higher, while Asian markets fell further.
President Joe Biden called the omicron variant a cause for concern but "not a cause for panic." He said he is not considering any widespread U.S. lockdown and instead urged mask-wearing and vaccinations, even as a federal judge blocked his administration from enforcing a requirement that thousands of health care workers in 10 states get the shot.
The world is learning
The infections have underscored the difficulty in keeping the virus in check in a globalized world of jet travel and open borders. Yet many countries are trying to do just that, against the urging of the WHO, which noted that border closings often have limited effect and can wreak havoc on lives and livelihoods.
Some argued that such restrictions could buy valuable time to analyze the new variant. Little is known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade vaccines.
While the initial global response to COVID-19 was criticized as slow and haphazard, the reaction to the new variant came quickly.
"This time the world showed it is learning," said E.U. Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, singling out South African President Cyril Ramaphosa for praise. "South Africa's analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response."
Late last week, von der Leyen successfully pushed the 27-nation E.U. to agree to ban flights from seven southern African nations, similar to what many other countries are doing.
Cases have been reported in such places as Britain, Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal, where authorities identified 13 omicron infections among members of the Belenenses professional soccer team.
Taking no chances, Japan, which has yet to detect any omicron cases, reimposed border controls that it had eased earlier this month.
"We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. The new measures begin Tuesday.
Many of us might think we are done with COVID-19. It's not done with us.
–Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of WHO
Israel likewise decided to bar entry to foreigners, and Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday.
And Britain expanded its COVID-19 booster program to everyone 18 and older, making millions of more people eligible. Up until now, booster shots were available only to those 40 and over and people particularly vulnerable to the virus. The U.K. has reported about a dozen omicron cases.
Despite the global worry, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms so far. But they warn that it is still early. Also, most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.
The variant has provided further proof of what experts have long been saying: No continent will be safe until the whole globe has been sufficiently vaccinated. The more the virus is allowed to spread, the more opportunities it has to mutate.
"The emergence of the omicron variant has fulfilled, in a precise way, the predictions of the scientists who warned that the elevated transmission of the virus in areas with limited access to vaccine would speed its evolution," said Dr. Richard Hatchett, head of CEPI, one of the founders of the U.N.-backed global vaccine sharing initiative COVAX.