Speaking on CNBC Monday morning following a holiday weekend in the US marked by rising hysteria over the new "Omicron" variant, Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel warned that any country that has received flights from southern Africa over the last two weeks very likely has already imported this new, highly infectious variant - even as others push back against claims that the new variant is hyper infectious.
For whatever reason, the mainstream media is choosing to amplify voices like Bancel's who are warning that the variant may be "highly infectious" while affirming that vaccine makers are working on new boosters specially designed to battle variants like omicron and others amid speculation the new variant can get around natural immunity from prior infection, as well as immunity fostered by being "fully vaccinated".
"I don't believe many people would have predicted such a big jump in evolution in one variant," says @sbancel on Omicron. "We need to get more data to confirm this but it seems to be much more infectious than delta." pic.twitter.com/tucBXNfYkn— Squawk Box (@SquawkCNBC) November 29, 2021
CNBC also bagged an interview with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla, who said Pfizer's as-yet-to-be-released antiviral, Paxlovid. It's expected that Paxlovid would likely be just as effective against omicron. Bourla said that the company would have all the information that it needs 'within weeks'. This information would help it ascertain the threat posed by the new variant. Bourla also said Pfizer could tweak its vaccine recipe to deliver an omicron-focused booster.
South African scientists have demanded that jab makers deliver these magical new boosters first to the south African countries where the mutant strain was first detected. Somehow, we highly doubt American vaccine-makers will prioritize African countries when the first cases of omicron have already been detected in the US. More quietly, a Pretoria doctor responsible for advising the South African government said over the weekend that symptoms of domestic cases linked to omicron have been "mild" so far.
In other omicron-related news, Japan announced early Monday in the US that the Japanese government would bar entry of all new foreign visitors beginning Nov. 30 over concerns about the omicron variant.
Japanese PM Fumio Kishida didn't clarify whether the new curbs applied to foreigners living and working in Japan, though he did say that Japanese nationals returning from "countries of interest" would be subject to more restrictive quarantine rules.
Ultimately, Japan is waiting for more information on the new variant as it tries to ascertain whether omicron has a chance of living up to the hype. The World Health Organization is holding a special public session with Dr. Tedros, the nominal leader of the organization. Anybody interested can watch video below:
As far as confirmed cases are concerned, Portugal on Monday said it had identified 13 cases of the omicron variant tied to a Lisbon-based soccer club. The club was forced to take part in a top-flight game over the weekend - a game that was abandoned while in progress.
Portugal's national health institute said the 13 players were isolating and that they were all players or staff members of Belenenses, which fielded a depleted team of only nine players against Benfica on Saturday after reporting a coronavirus outbreak.
One player on the Lisbon team recently returned from South Africa, the country where scientists with the Kwazulu-Natal research Innovation and Sequencing Platform first identified the new variant.
Separately, Portugal's health authorities said they are tracing more than 200 passengers who had arrived in Portugal on Saturday from Maputo, Mozambique, one of a handful of southern African nations seen as most likely to export cases of the variant. At least two people on the flight had tested positive for COVID, although it isn't clear whether these cases have been driven by the new variant.
Circling back to the developed world, where scientists are assuming that any country that has received flights from southern African nations over the last two weeks might be vulnerable to a renewed omicron-driven outbreak, Australia has decided to delay the reopening of its borders for two weeks after confirming that two cases of the variant have been identified in Sydney. Japan, which imposed new travel restrictions, has prohibited all tourists since early in the pandemic.
Around the world, countries tightened restrictions pertaining to the border and travel, while some moved ahead with plans to reopen land borders. For example, Singapore and Malaysia went ahead with plans to reopen their land border, while South Korea, on the other hand, announced planned to delay any loosening of COVID restrictions, according to the NYT.
With regard to Biden's "racist" ban, the travel restrictions do not ban flights or apply to U.S. citizens and lawful U.S. permanent residents (barring only foreign travelers from South Africa and seven other southern African countries). However, until the ban started at 12:01 ET Monday, flights from South Africa continued to carry foreign nationals.
Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, the two airlines that fly direct to Johannesburg said on Friday they do not plan any changes to their South Africa-U.S. flights after the variant was discovered. United currently operates five flights per week between Newark and Johannesburg. Delta operates three from Johannesburg to Atlanta.
Globally, it appears the trend is toward shutting down, not reopening, as a cascade of border closures and travel restrictions began to recall the earliest days of the pandemic, even in the absence of scientific evidence about whether such measures might help to stop the virus's spread. Hours after Israel announced its blanket ban over the weekend, Morocco said Sunday that it would deny entry to all travelers, even Moroccan citizens, for 2 weeks starting Monday. The country will also ban all incoming and outgoing flights for two weeks.
Broad restrictions like these contrasted with restrictions imposed by the US, UK, Canada and the EU, which have all announced bans on travelers from southern Africa only. Indonesia on Monday joined a small but growing list of countries that have barred travel from Hong Kong as well as the southern Africa region. HK detected 2 cases of omicron back on Thursday, as we learned over the weekend. India and Pakistan cited the Hong Kong cases as inspiration for its own travel ban.
Despite the fact that it has delivered more boosters than any other nation (while also vaccinating a higher percentage of its citizens), Israel has imposed some of the most restrictive new travel rules, barring all entrants except those needed for "urgent humanitarian reasons" that must be approved by a special committee.
As far as confirmed cases of the new variant, it has been detected in South Africa and Botswana, as well as in travelers to Australia, Austria, Belgium, Britain, Canada, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Netherlands and Hong Kong. The variant officially arrived to North America late Sunday as public health officials in Ontario confirmed two cases. It's unclear whether the variant has arrived in the US.
Here's a map of the variant's spread courtesy of the NYT:
And here's a list, courtesy of WaPo:
- Hong Kong
- South Africa
- Switzerland (probable case)
As for the total number of cases confirmed globally, it's not clear how many omicron cases have been confirmed.
Within the UK, six cases of the variant have reportedly identified in Scotland, according to a Monday morning report from the BBC.
The variant was first identified in South Africa with the first confirmed cases in Botswana and nearby countries.
As the WHO reminds us, fewer than 200 cases of omicron have been confirmed around the world. It's also not clear yet whether the new variant will be as effective at evading vaccine-induced protections as some scientists fear.
"We don’t yet know whether Omicron is associated with more:— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) November 29, 2021
-severe #COVID19 disease
-risk of reinfections
-risk of evading vaccines.
Scientists at WHO & around the 🌍 are working urgently to answer these questions"-@DrTedros #WHASpecial https://t.co/FDFXHLYyfn
As we have noted before, other scientists believe the variant would likely only produce mild symptoms in patients who have already been infected, along with the vaccinated.
Omicron carries about 50 mutations not seen in combination before, including more than 30 mutations on the spike protein that the coronavirus uses to attach to human cells. But as for whether omicron will ultimately prove more deadly than earlier strains, well, it's not yet clear: a growing number of scientists in South Africa and elsewhere have said the symptoms caused by the new strain are "mild to moderate", and ultimately less severe than other strains like delta.