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World races to contain new variant

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The Philippines has temporarily suspended a decision to allow fully vaccinated tourists entry in a bid to prevent a new, heavily mutated coronavirus variant taking off in the country where most of the population remains unvaccinated.


It comes as the Southeast Asian nation on Monday launched a three-day vaccination drive targeting nine million people as young as 12 in an effort to accelerate the roll-out of jabs.


So far, the country has not reported any cases of the Omicron strain, which was first detected in South Africa and has since spread around the globe.


Manila announced plans last week to allow fully vaccinated tourists from most countries to enter from December 1 as it seeks to revive the nation's battered economy.


But the government's Covid-19 task force reversed course over the weekend as it announced the suspension of flights from seven European countries, in addition to an earlier ban on arrivals from several African nations.


"The IATF deemed it necessary to suspend the entry of foreign tourists, given worldwide concerns over the Omicron variant," Bureau of Immigration commissioner Jaime Morente said Monday, using the acronym for the task force.


The decision is a major blow to tourism operators across the archipelago nation, which have been devastated by a plunge in international visitors and restrictions on domestic travel since borders shut in March 2020.


Tourism is a major driver of the country's economy, accounting for nearly 13 percent of gross domestic product in 2019, when more than eight million people visited, official data shows.


The government has eased virus restrictions in recent weeks as the daily infection rate hovers at the lowest level since the beginning of the year and the nationwide vaccination rate increases.


But the emergence of Omicron has raised fears curbs could be reimposed.


Japan will reinstate tough border measures, barring all new foreign arrivals over the Omicron Covid variant, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced Monday, just weeks after a softening of strict entry rules.


"We will ban the (new) entry of foreigners from around the world starting from November 30th," Kishida told reporters.


Japan's borders have been almost entirely shut to new overseas visitors for most of the pandemic, with even foreign residents at one point unable to enter the country.


In early November, the government announced it would finally allow some short-term business travellers, foreign students and other visa holders to enter the country, while continuing to bar tourists.


Tokyo had already announced on Friday it would require travelers permitted to enter Japan from six southern African countries to quarantine in government-designated facilities for 10 days on arrival. The step was expanded to a total of nine countries over the weekend.


That measure now affects travelers coming from South Africa and neighboring Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique.


Kishida said Monday that further quarantine restrictions would be imposed on arrivals from an additional 14 countries and regions where the variant has been detected, without giving further details.


Several European nations announced their first cases of a highly infectious new coronavirus strain, as governments worldwide began pulling down the shutters to contain the new Omicron variant.


Britain, Germany, and Italy confirmed their first cases of the new Covid-19 strain, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for Covid-19.


South Africa complained it was being punished with air travel bans for having first detected the strain, which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern”. A series of countries across the world began restricting travel from the region, to try to head off any threat to global efforts against the pandemic.


Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, particularly whether it can evade existing vaccines. It has already proved to be more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant.


Travelers thronged Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many of these people had cut short holidays, rushing back from South African safaris and vineyards. “It’s ridiculous, we will always be having new variants’’, British tourist David Good told AFP, passport in hand. “South Africa found it, but it’s probably all over the world already.”


The virus has already slipped through the net, with cases discovered in Europe, Hong Kong and Israel and in southern Arica.


Britain on Saturday announced tougher entry rules for all arriving passengers and the return of a mask mandate, after confirming its first two cases of the new Omicron strain of Covid.


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