The World Health Organization said a newly identified coronavirus variant in southern Africa was “of concern” on Friday, as countries around the world moved to restrict travelers arriving from that region to keep it from crossing their borders.
So far, only a few dozen cases of the new variant have been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. There is no proof yet that the variant is more contagious or lethal, or could diminish the protective power of vaccines, but uncertainty on those questions was one factor in the speed of countries’ move toward restrictions.
On Friday evening, the World Health Organization gave the new version of the virus the name Omicron and called it a “variant of concern,” its most serious category. “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the W.H.O. said in its official description. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant.”
Earlier on Friday, the European Commission proposed that its member countries activate the “emergency brake” on travel from countries in southern Africa and other affected countries to limit the spread of the variant.
“All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, said in a statement. “And travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”
In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants. This time, however, restrictions came within hours of South Africa’s announcement. At least 10 countries around the world had announced measures before South African scientists finished a meeting with World Health Organization experts about the variant on Friday.
The United States and Canada announced restrictions on travelers arriving from countries in southern Africa. Other governments that halted or restricted flights from South Africa included Bahrain, Belgium, Britain, Croatia, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore.
The new variant, initially called B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform. On the protein that helps to create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells, the variant has 10 mutations, many more than the highly contagious Delta variant, Professor de Oliveira said.
Still, even epidemiologists who have been the most outspoken in supporting precautions against the virus urged calm on Friday, noting that little is known about the variant and that several seemingly threatening variants have come and gone in recent months.
“Substantively NOTHING is known about the new variant,” Roberto Burioni, a leading Italian virologist, wrote on Twitter, adding that people should not panic.
Stocks tumbled around the world on Friday as the news of the variant spooked markets and terrified many Europeans already exhausted by news of breakthrough infections, surging cases and rallies by vaccine skeptics.
Countries in Europe, once again the epicenter of the pandemic, were among the first to announce travel bans. Britain announced its restrictions on Thursday and put them into force on Friday.
“More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now,” Sajid Javid, the British health secretary, said on Twitter.
In the past two days, scientists in South Africa — which has a sophisticated detection system — discovered the variant after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub surrounding Johannesburg.
“This variant did surprise us — it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta,” Professor de Oliveira said.
President Biden will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other African countries to try to contain a troubling new variant of the coronavirus, senior administration officials said on Friday, though they said it would be impossible to prevent it from entering the United States.
Starting on Monday, the administration will prohibit travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi from coming to the United States, the officials said.
The travel ban will not apply to American citizens or lawful permanent residents, officials said. But they will need to show a negative coronavirus test before coming to the United States.
Mr. Biden made the decision after he was briefed by advisers including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who said in an interview Friday that the variant appeared to be spreading rapidly and that he and other health officials in the United States were consulting with South African scientists.
The White House announced the decision after the World Health Organization said the newly detected version of the virus, labeled Omicron, was “a variant of concern,” a category for dangerous variants that may spread quickly, cause severe disease or decrease the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments.
“I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious,” Mr. Biden told reporters in Nantucket. “We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is a great concern and seems to spread rapidly.”
By imposing the travel restrictions, the administration will not stop the virus from coming to the United States; in fact, experts said, it may already be here. But it can give health officials and pharmaceutical companies time to determine whether the current vaccines work against the new variant — and if not, to create new vaccines that do.
“It’s going to buy us some time,” Dr. Fauci said. “It’s not going to be possible to keep this infection out of the country. The question is: Can you slow it down?”
Dr. Fauci said the new variant has about 30 mutations, and roughly 10 of them are on a part of the virus that is associated with transmissibility and immune protection. That suggests the virus may be more transmissible and may escape the current vaccines “to an extent yet to be determined.”
He said there had been some breakthrough infections among those who had recovered from the Delta variant, and among those who were vaccinated.
But at the same time, he said, scientists do not know the severity of the infections caused by the new variant. It is entirely possible that it spreads more quickly but causes less severe disease.
“You don’t want to say don’t worry, and you don’t want to say you’ve got to worry yourself sick, because we’re gathering information rapidly,” he said, adding, “Even though the numbers are still small, the doubling time is pretty rapid and the slope of the increase is really rather sharp.”
Biden administration officials said they were continuing to work with health officials in other countries to learn more about the variant.
“Restricting travel is going to slow its coming, not stop it from coming,” said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and an adviser to the president during his transition. “The fact that it’s coming here is inevitable. The environment in which it comes may not be inevitable. We can alter the environment.”
Mr. Biden said on Friday that the rise of the Omicron variant was another reason for vaccinated Americans to get boosters and unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated — a point Dr. Fauci echoed. And Mr. Biden said the development should push the international community to donate more vaccines to nations suffering from a lack of access or poor vaccination rates.
Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota who also advised Mr. Biden during his transition, said the administration had little choice on implementing the travel ban.
But Dr. Osterholm said it could take time before scientists know if the current vaccines are effective against the variant, and how transmissible it is. One way to figure that out is through laboratory studies, which will take several weeks, he said. Another way is to follow breakthrough cases in people who are already vaccinated, which could take months.
JOHANNESBURG — As the United States and European countries close their borders over fears over the recently detected coronavirus variant, many South Africans say they feel as if they are being “punished” for alerting global health authorities.
Hours after South African scientists announced the existence of a new variant that they said displayed “a big jump in evolution,” Britain banned travelers from southern African nations. Other European nations and the United States quickly followed suit.
“I do apologize that people took a very radical decision,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform and the scientist who announced the new variant on Thursday.
Fresh from a virtual meeting with global health leaders, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser on the coronavirus, Mr. Oliveira told journalists he believed that international solidarity would be in favor of South Africa’s decision to publicize its findings.
The variant, dubbed Omicron by the World Health Organization, has been detected in 22 patients in South Africa. In neighboring Botswana, four cases of the new variant were found. The government announced that the four cases were all foreign diplomats who had since left, and that contact tracing was continuing.
The economies of South Africa and Botswana are reliant on tourists from the United States, Europe and China. South Africa’s tourism minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, described the temporary travel bans as “devastating.” Earlier this year, South African diplomats and scientists lobbied the British government to lift a previous ban that had already crippled tourism.
“We had been on the British red list and we worked our way out of it and with no notification we find ourselves back on the red list,” Ms. Sisulu told a national television station.
“Perhaps our scientists’ ability to trace some of these variants has been our biggest weakness,” Ms. Sisulu said. “We’re finding ourselves punished for the work that we do.”
Health officials in Africa suggested that increased screening at points of entry, or even longer quarantine periods, would have been a better alternative.
“This will just discourage different countries for sharing information which might be very important for global public health,” said Thierno Balde, incident manager for the Covid-19 emergency response for the World Health Organization’s regional office in Africa.
South Africa’s transparency was criticized by some local officials and businesspeople. Geordin Hill-Lewis, the mayor of Cape Town, said South African officials should have consulted their “travel partners” before making the announcement.
In January 2020, before global travel restrictions over the coronavirus pandemic, 93,315 international tourists arrived at Cape Town International airport, according to Statistics South Africa. By May 2021, that number had dropped to 4,821.
After the travel restrictions imposed after the highly transmissible Delta variant, Mr. Hill-Lewis said he believed that South African authorities should have expected the restrictions.
“That should have been foreseen and some heavy diplomacy put into action,” he said.
But Craig Lucke, a Cape Town-based guide who operates tours in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa called the countries’ actions “a total shocker.”
The pharmaceutical company Merck said on Friday that in a final analysis of a clinical trial, its antiviral pill reduced the risk of hospitalization and death among high-risk Covid patients by 30 percent, down from an earlier estimate of 50 percent.
The lower efficacy is a disappointment for the drug, known as molnupiravir, which health officials around the world are counting on as a critical tool to save lives and reduce the burden on hospitals. It increases the importance of a similar, apparently more effective, offering from Pfizer that is also under review by the Food and Drug Administration.
A panel of advisers to the F.D.A. is set to meet on Tuesday to discuss Merck’s treatment and vote on whether to recommend authorizing it to treat high-risk Covid patients.
In briefing documents posted to the F.D.A.’s website on Friday, agency reviewers did not take a position on whether the drug should be authorized, though they found that the clinical trial data did not show any major safety concerns and that the drug was effective in preventing severe disease.
The reviewers said they had only become aware of the updated efficacy estimate earlier this week and were still reviewing the data. They said they could update their assessment when the panel meets on Tuesday.
Merck’s initial estimate that the drug reduced hospitalization and death by 50 percent came from an early look at results from 775 study participants. The updated figure announced on Friday came from more than 1,400. In the final analysis, the participants who received molnupiravir had a 6.8 percent risk of being hospitalized, and one patient died. Those who received a placebo had a 9.7 percent risk of being hospitalized, and nine died.
Dr. David Boulware, an infectious disease researcher at the University of Minnesota, said he expected the drug would still receive emergency authorization. If the expert committee endorses it and the F.D.A. heeds the recommendation, the treatment could be authorized in the United States as soon as next week.
“The reduction in hospitalization is a little bit less, but there is still a big mortality benefit if you start early,” he said.
Still, he said, molnupiravir will probably be deemed a lower-tier treatment, an alternative choice for people who can’t get or don’t want more effective treatments.
Monoclonal antibody drugs, which are typically administered intravenously in the United States, have been found to reduce hospitalizations and deaths by at least 70 percent. Pfizer’s antiviral pill, Paxlovid, which was found in a clinical trial to cut the risk of hospitalization and death by 89 percent, could become available within weeks. Fluvoxamine, a common and inexpensive antidepressant, appears to be about as effective as molnupiravir.
Meant to be dispensed at pharmacies and taken at home, Merck’s drug is the first in a new class of antiviral treatments for Covid that are expected to reach many more people than other treatments have. Public health experts say that while the pills are no substitute for vaccination, they have the potential to prevent severe illness and save lives.
With 30 mutations in the spike protein of the new Omicron variant, it’s not surprising that some of them are worrying to Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization’s technical lead on Covid-19.
But she said in a televised statement on Friday that she wouldn’t know just how much people should worry about the mutations to the spike protein, the part that allows the virus to enter human cells, until several studies — now underway — to assess Omicron were completed in the coming days and weeks.
In a statement on Friday, the W.H.O. said the Omicron variant had “a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” and that “preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other” variants of the virus.
The World Health Organization said Omicron was “a variant of concern,” its most serious tracking category, which means it shows increased transmissibility, increased virulence or decreased effectiveness of available diagnostics or vaccines.
So far, only a few dozen cases of the new variant have been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. Scientists have yet to determine if the variant is more contagious or lethal, or if it could diminish the protective power of vaccines.
The W.H.O.’s statement said that the first case of the variant, also known as B.1.1.529, was recorded on Nov. 9 and that it now appeared to be spreading in most of the provinces of South Africa.
Researchers in South Africa found more than 30 mutations to the spike protein on the surface of the Omicron coronavirus. The protein latches onto host cells to gain entry and is also the chief target of antibodies that can stop an infection. The large number of mutations raised concerns that Omicron might evade antibodies produced by infections from previous variants, or by vaccines.
In the meantime, proven public health measures have never been more important, Dr. Van Kerkhove said. Those include social distancing, wearing a mask over the nose and mouth, regularly cleaning hands, avoiding crowded spaces, keeping rooms ventilated and getting vaccinated.
As long as billions of people remain unvaccinated against the virus, there will be more opportunities for it to mutate into more threatening variants.
Carl Zimmer contributed reporting.
Scientists are still unclear on how effective vaccines will be against the new variant flagged by a team in South Africa, which displays mutations that might resist neutralization. Only several dozen cases have been fully identified so far in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Belgium and Israel.
The new variant, B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” with more than 30 in the spike protein alone, according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
The variant shares similarities with the Lambda and Beta variants, which are associated with an innate evasion of immunity, said Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
“All these things are what give us some concern that this variant might have not just enhanced transmissibility, so spread more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system,” Dr. Lessells said.
The new variant has largely been detected among young people, the cohort that also has the lowest vaccination rate in South Africa. Just over a quarter of people ages 18 to 34 in South Africa are vaccinated, said Dr. Joe Phaahla, the country’s health minister.
While cases of the variant are mainly concentrated in the country’s economic hub — particularly in its administrative capital, Pretoria — it is “only a matter of time” before the virus spreads across the country as schools close and families prepare to travel for the holiday season, Dr. Phaahla said.
PARIS — Protesters fired live ammunition at journalists and the police on Thursday night on the French Caribbean island of Martinique, injuring dozens of officers, one of them seriously, a spokesman for the French government said.
As in Guadeloupe, another French island to the north, the protests against Martinique’s coronavirus protocols — which require vaccinations for health care workers and a health pass to enter most public venues — have been exacerbated by long-running frustrations and anger over economic inequality with the mainland. The poverty rate in Martinique is 29.8 percent, almost twice the national level in France.
The mix of old grievances and new anger over Covid-19 rules has made the unrest particularly volatile.
“These extremely serious acts call for unanimous and unambiguous condemnation,” the French prime minister, Jean Castex, said in a tweet on Friday in response to the violent protests in Martinique’s largest city, Fort-de-France.
An arson attempt at the official residence of France’s most senior representative on the island was also reported. The local police office declined to comment on the report.
On Thursday evening, the local authorities had announced a curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. “until a return to calm.” The curfew was in response to nighttime violence since Monday.
Nearly 150 people have been arrested in Guadeloupe and Martinique since the beginning of the crisis, according to the government spokesman, Gabriel Attal. Ten of the arrests were made on Thursday night, according to Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who said in a tweet, “Everything is being done to find those responsible.”
The central government also announced that it would extend until Dec. 31 the deadline for health care workers in Martinique and Guadeloupe to complete their coronavirus vaccinations.
Someday, I may appreciate the irony in this situation.
For now, I’m in my fourth hour trapped on the tarmac at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, where officials will not allow so much as a catering truck to bring us water. And an appreciation for irony is elusive.
My flight took off nearly 16 hours ago from Johannesburg, where people were abuzz with the news of the discovery of a coronavirus variant that is spreading in South Africa.
This variant has many mutations, in particular on the spike protein that helps it enter human cells, and is spreading relatively quickly around Johannesburg.
South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases shared what it knew midday on Thursday, and before I even took off, Britain had banned flights from southern Africa. Europe apparently panicked while I was somewhere over the Sahara; by the time we landed, we were told we would not be permitted off the plane.
The irony lies in the fact that I was in South Africa to report on the risk of variants emerging in countries with low vaccination coverage — and on the impressive, multilayered approach South Africa is using to try to protect global public health. I spent time in the labs of the same scientists who, yesterday, made the announcement that has left me hostage with a planeload of strangers while “the authorities” somewhere debate what to do with us.
Teeeeny bit ironic that I was IN South Africa to report on the amazing work they are doing surveilling variants, among other things.
— Stephanie Nolen (@snolen) November 26, 2021
Everyone on this flight had to show proof of a negative Covid test; most, it seems, are fully vaccinated, as I am. (We’ve all had time to chat.)
The prevailing sentiment among these restive, and thirsty, people is that South Africa is being punished for having some of the world’s most advanced study of infectious disease, a legacy of its battle with H.I.V. — and for being transparent, quickly, about what it learns.
Passengers are reading aloud to each other from news stories that say Europe intends to put us all into mandatory 14-day quarantine, regardless of our vaccination status or test results.
From our windows we can see a flight from Cape Town, also parked out here, stuck in limbo.
For now, I have plenty of time to make my way through the mountain of research that South African scientists shared with me.
The new variant that emerged in southern Africa could pose “a substantial risk to public health,” Britain’s health secretary, Sajid Javid, said on Friday, explaining a British decision to suspend flights and place six African countries on a quarantine list.
“This new variant is of huge international concern,” Mr. Javid said in a statement to Parliament while adding that no cases have yet been detected in the U.K.
Mr. Javid described the situation as fast moving and said there was a high degree of uncertainty around the spread of the virus and its possible impact. But he suggested that the signs were worrying.
“Early indications show that this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it,’’ he said.
Late on Thursday Britain said it was suspending flights temporarily from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe. When they start up again, British and Irish citizens returning from these countries will be required to quarantine in government-approved hotel facilities.
Mr. Javid said that assessments were being made of the situation in other nations with strong travel links to South Africa, suggesting that the list of so-called “red list” countries could grow.
“The sequence of this variant, currently called B.1.1.529, was first uploaded by Hong Kong from a case of someone traveling from South Africa,” Mr. Javid said. “Further cases have been identified in South Africa, in Botswana, and it is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries.”
Early in the pandemic the British government was criticized for delaying the introduction of its quarantine system and the swiftness of Thursday’s move reflects a desire not to repeat that mistake.
“One of the lessons of this pandemic is that we must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” said Mr. Javid.
Speaking for the opposition Labour Party, Alex Norris welcomed the move but said that the emergence of the new variant reflected the “failure of the global community to distribute the vaccine” around the world.
Nearly 20 months after pandemic lockdowns first began, governments across Europe are beginning to tighten restrictions again amid the latest wave of new coronavirus cases, threatening the gains that the region has made against the pandemic.
France is racing to offer booster shots to all adults and will not renew health passes for those who refuse. Deaths are rising in Germany, with its 68 percent vaccination rate, a worrying trend for a highly inoculated country. Austria has been in a nationwide lockdown since Monday, and made vaccinations mandatory.
In Eastern Europe, where far-right and populist groups have fueled vaccine skepticism, vaccination rates are lower than the rest of the continent. Bulgaria, where a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, is turning back to shutdowns or other restrictive measures.
The quickly deteriorating situation in Europe is worrisome for the United States, where the seven-day average of new cases has risen 24 percent in the past two weeks. (The number of new deaths reported in the United States is down 6 percent.) Trends in new cases in the United States have tended to follow Europe by a few weeks.
“Time and again, we’ve seen how the infection dynamics in Europe are mirrored here several weeks later,” Carissa F. Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, told reporters on Wednesday. “The future is unfolding before us, and it must be a wake-up call for our region because we are even more vulnerable.”
The White House insists that while new infections are on the rise, the United States can avoid European-style lockdowns.
“We are not headed in that direction,” Jeff Zients, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, said this week. “We have the tools to accelerate the path out of this pandemic: widely available vaccinations, booster shots, kids’ shots, therapeutics.”
But the chief of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said that some countries had lapsed into a “false sense of security.”
He issued a warning during a news briefing on Wednesday: “While Europe is again the epicenter of the pandemic, no country or region is out of the woods.”
The Hong Kong government said on Thursday that it had detected two cases of a new variant identified in South Africa, which scientists have warned shows a “big jump in evolution” and could limit the effectiveness of vaccines.
The infections were detected in a man who had returned to Hong Kong from South Africa this month, and later in another man staying across the hall in the same quarantine hotel. (Hong Kong requires almost all overseas arrivals to quarantine in hotels for two to three weeks.) The virus’s genetic sequence was identical in both men, suggesting airborne transmission, according to the city’s Center for Health Protection. Both men were vaccinated.
Further sequencing by the University of Hong Kong confirmed that the viruses belonged to the new variant from South Africa, officials said, though they acknowledged that information about the variant’s public health impact was “lacking at the moment.”
Some Hong Kong experts have questioned the length and efficacy of Hong Kong’s quarantines, noting that officials have recorded several cases of residents in quarantine hotels apparently infecting people who were staying in other rooms.
In the case of the latest variant infections, the government has blamed the first man for not wearing a surgical mask when opening his hotel room door, as well as “unsatisfactory air flow” in the hotel. As of Friday afternoon there had been no reports of infections in nearby rooms.
The presence of the new variant may complicate efforts to reopen the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. For months, Hong Kong officials have said that resuming quarantine-free travel between the Chinese territory and the mainland — virtually the only places in the world still pursuing a containment strategy that seeks full eradication of the virus — is their top priority, even though the strategy has damaged the city’s reputation as a global finance hub.
Mainland officials have said that Hong Kong is not doing enough to control the virus, even though the city has recorded just two locally transmitted cases in the last six months. The mainland has recently faced new domestic outbreaks; on Thursday, the National Health Commission there reported four new local cases.
On Thursday evening, Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, John Lee, said mainland officials had told him earlier in the day that Hong Kong had “basically fulfilled” the conditions to reopen the border. He said details would still need to be worked out, including the introduction of a mainland-style “health code” app that has raised privacy concerns.
Asked by a reporter whether the new variant would delay reopening with the mainland, Mr. Lee said only that the Hong Kong authorities would “ensure that adequate research and tracking are done in this regard.”
“Of course, we must manage and control any new risks,” he said.