Israel will become the first country on Sunday to ban the entry of all foreigners as the world struggles to understand and contain the disturbing new variant of Covid-19 that has emerged in southern Africa.
The government has also promised to use controversial phone tracking technology to track and locate cases of the new variant of omicron.
Meanwhile, Dutch health officials said they detected 61 cases of Covid-19 among people who flew on two flights from South Africa on Friday and believe at least some infections are of the new variant.
Days after the World Health Organization sounded the alarm about the new variant, cases of omicron have now been detected across Europe, including the UK, Italy, Germany and in Belgium, as well as in Australia, Israel and Hong Kong.
Although no cases of the new variant have been detected in the United States, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, told NBC News’ Lester Holt that the mutations displayed by omicron indicate that it may be highly transmissible and able to evade the body’s immune response, including the protection offered by vaccine-induced antibodies.
“You don’t want to scare the American public, but when something happens that you need to take seriously, you take it seriously and you do everything you can to fix it,” Fauci said.
“If ever there was a reason for unvaccinated people to get vaccinated, and for those who have been vaccinated, when the time is right, to go get vaccinated,” he added.
Omicron was first reported in South Africa on Wednesday. The WHO has since called it a “worrying variant”, sparking international concern and a host of international bans on arrivals from a number of countries in southern Africa.
The United States also restricted travel from South Africa and seven neighboring countries, as of Monday.
But experts, including Fauci, told NBC News the variant may already be in the United States.
“It’s already there,” said Dr. Kavita Patel, NBC News medical collaborator. “We know from the previous variants that by the time we get it back in Africa and the European Union, it’s already likely.”
In Israel, which has confirmed a variant case and has seven suspected cases, authorities decided on Saturday to ban foreign travelers from all countries and to impose quarantine on all Israelis arriving from abroad. The ban is expected to last 14 days, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement.
Bennett’s office also said that Israel’s Internal Security Agency, also known as the Shin Bet, would activate cell phone surveillance in order to track and locate verified cases of the new variant.
The technology has been used on and off since the start of the pandemic, comparing the locations of virus carriers to other nearby cell phones to determine who they had come into contact with. Earlier this year, Israel’s Supreme Court banned the government from large-scale use of cell phone tracking of coronavirus carriers due to privacy concerns from civil rights groups.
Meanwhile, Dutch officials said 61 cases of Covid-19 were discovered among 624 passengers who arrived at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol on two flights from South Africa on Friday before the Dutch government restricted air traffic from southern Africa.
“In a number of people tested, the omicron variant is presumed to have been found,” the Netherlands Institute of Health (RIVM) said in a statement, according to Reuters. A spokesperson for RIVM said it was “almost certain” the cases were of the new variant, but more testing was needed to be absolutely sure.
The measures to contain the new variant come as European countries reintroduce restrictions and curfews amid an increase in coronavirus cases.
The UK, which has suffered one of the worst epidemics in Europe, has also identified two cases of the new variant. Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday announced that anyone arriving in the UK will be asked to take a test on the second day and will have to self-isolate until they provide a negative test result. He also said face coverings would be made mandatory in shops and on public transport.
As the world was on high alert over the weekend, Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised South African scientists for their “early identification” of the new variant. In a statement on Saturday, he also praised the South African government for its “transparency in sharing this information,” which he said should serve as a model for the world.
But South African officials have expressed dismay at the speed and extent of travel bans imposed on their country, saying they “amount to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and ability to detect new variants more quickly, “according to a statement from the South African Foreign Office.
“Scientific excellence must be applauded and not punished,” he added.
The WHO has also warned against the hasty imposition of travel restrictions, saying countries should take a “science-based and risk-based approach.”