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A health worker administers a dose of the COVID-19 booster vaccine at Midland House in Derby, Britain, on Sept. 20.CARL RECINE/Reuters

As more cases of the Omicron variant surface around the globe, the World Health Organization says the risk of further spread is high and could have severe consequences for some countries, especially those with relatively low vaccination rates.

The new variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 has appeared in at least 16 countries, including Canada, since it was detected by scientists in South Africa last week. Britain has reported 11 cases, including six in Scotland that have not been linked to travel from South Africa – an indication the virus has spread into the community, officials said.

“The emergence of the highly mutated Omicron variant underlines just how perilous and precarious our situation is,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday.

However, Scottish officials also said none of the six have been admitted to hospital.

“It is now clear that the Omicron variant has been spreading around the world for some days, if not weeks prior to the alarms being raised,” said Rowland Kao, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh.

“It is important to remember that the Omicron variant may not pose an increased health risk – it may in fact cause milder infections. However, we shall only know for sure in the next few weeks, once there are enough cases and enough time for statistically reliable estimates of severe illness to be made.”

We need to be ready for Omicron, but let’s not assume the worst

Canada’s foreign travel restrictions in response to the Omicron variant are discriminatory and self-defeating

In the U.S., President Joe Biden said he doesn’t expect to introduce further travel curbs or lockdowns as he sought to assure the country that Washington was prepared to handle the new variant. “This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,” he said.

“Sooner or later we are going to see cases of this new variant here in the United States,” Mr. Biden added. “Please wear your mask when you’re indoors, in public settings around other people.”

Governments have been racing to respond to Omicron, which scientists worry could be more transmissible than the Delta variant and better able to evade vaccines. Many countries have tightened travel restrictions to slow its spread, and some, such as Japan and Israel, have banned all foreign visitors. Others, such as Canada and the U.S., have prohibited travellers from a select list of African countries, including South Africa, or introduced strict quarantine measures.

At the same time, South African scientists have been widely praised for alerting the world to the variant. South Africa is a world leader, along with Britain and the United States, in tracking genetic mutations of the virus and sharing the information globally.

“South Africa’s analytic work and transparency and sharing its results was indispensable in allowing a swift global response. It no doubt saved many lives,” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.

United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres said he is deeply concerned the new travel restrictions are causing the isolation of southern African countries. Instead of travel bans, a better tool would be the repeated testing of travellers, he said.

“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa – and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world,” Mr. Guterres said in a statement Monday.

The travel bans are threatening to disrupt the laboratory work that is vitally needed for tracking the spread of the new variant. Chemical substances known as reagents, necessary for lab testing, could soon be unavailable in South Africa because of the flight restrictions, scientists say.

“Today I spent a big part of my day talking to genomic and biotech companies,” said Tulio de Oliveira, one of the South African scientists who helped detect the new variant, in a tweet Monday. “Soon we will run out of reagents, as airplanes are not flying to South Africa.”

Omicron has more than 50 mutations, compared with the 18 of the Delta variant, which was a mutation of the original Alpha version of the virus. At least 30 of its mutations are on the spike protein, the bumpy structure on the surface of the virus that allows it to enter human cells. All the vaccines developed so far target the spike protein, and substantial mutations could make the virus less recognizable to antibodies.

Nonetheless, health experts say there is no evidence yet that vaccines will be less effective against Omicron, especially at preventing serious illness. As a result, many countries have begun to ramp up vaccination programs, including booster shots.

On Monday, the British government said it would begin offering booster shots to all adults, not just people over 40. The government is also shortening the time between the second and third jab, to three months from five. So far, almost 18 million people in Britain have received a booster shot.

Expanding eligibility “represents a huge step up for our vaccination program, almost doubling the number of people who will be able to get a booster dose to protect themselves and their loved ones,” Health Secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons Monday.

Britain is banking heavily on vaccines to address Omicron and the current wave of Delta infections. The country has recorded between 30,000 and 50,000 new cases every day for the past several months. However, the number of people admitted to hospital has fallen 11 per cent in the past week, and the daily death toll has dropped 18 per cent.

The government has made moderate changes to its pandemic strategy because of the new variant. Face masks will become mandatory in England on Tuesday, but only on public transit and in stores, and secondary school students have been “strongly advised” to wear face coverings in communal areas.

With files from Geoffrey York in Johannesburg

The Omicron variant: More on The Decibel

Globe and Mail science correspondent Ivan Semeniuk explains what we know so far about Omicron and how effective current COVID-19 vaccines are against it. Subscribe for more episodes.

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