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Japan Suspends New Flight Reservations 12/01 06:11

   

   TOKYO (AP) -- Japan continued its aggressive stance against a new 
coronavirus variant on Wednesday, asking international airlines to stop taking 
new reservations for all flights arriving in the country until the end of 
December in a further tightening of already strict border controls.

   The transportation ministry said the request is an emergency precaution amid 
growing worry over the spread of the new omicron variant. The move by the 
world's third largest economy, coupled with its recent return to a ban on 
foreign visitors, is among the most stringent anywhere, and more in line with 
cloistered neighbor China than with some other democracies in the region. It 
comes as scientists work frantically to determine just how threatening omicron 
is.

   Those who have already made reservations are not affected, although flights 
may be canceled if there are insufficient passengers, the Ministry of Land, 
Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism said. Japan is a major transit hub for 
flights to and from Asia, and its huge importance economically means that its 
actions could have a wider influence. Transit flights won't be affected.

   The decision comes as Japan confirmed a second case of the omicron variant 
in a person who arrived from Peru, one day after it reported its first case in 
a Namibian diplomat.

   Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more 
contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more 
seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

   The U.S. is moving to toughen testing requirements for international 
arrivals, including both vaccinated and unvaccinated people.

   The precise testing protocols were still being finalized ahead of a speech 
by President Joe Biden planned for Thursday. The Centers for Disease Control 
and Prevention said in a statement that it was working toward requiring that 
all air travelers to the U.S. be tested for COVID-19 within a day before 
boarding their flight. Currently those who are fully vaccinated may present a 
test taken within three days of boarding.

   Japan banned all foreign visitors starting Tuesday as an emergency 
precaution against the new variant. The ban tentatively extends through the end 
of the year. The government is also requiring Japanese citizens arriving in the 
country to quarantine for up to 14 days.

   The World Health Organization warned Monday that the global risk from the 
omicron variant is "very high" based on early evidence, saying it could lead to 
surges with "severe consequences."

   Recent findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close 
to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.

   The Netherlands' RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating 
from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant. It was on Nov. 24 that 
South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to 
the World Health Organization.

   That indicates omicron had a bigger head start in the Netherlands than 
previously believed.

   The finding illustrates the difficulty in containing the virus in an age of 
jet travel and economic globalization. And it left the world once again 
whipsawed between hopes of returning to normal and fears that the worst is yet 
to come.

   The pandemic has shown repeatedly that the virus "travels quickly because of 
our globalized, interconnected world," said Dr. Albert Ko, an infectious 
disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. Until the vaccination 
drive reaches every country, "we're going to be in this situation again and 
again."

   Brazil, which has recorded a staggering total of more than 600,000 COVID-19 
deaths, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South 
Africa -- the first known omicron cases in Latin America. The travelers were 
tested on Nov. 25, authorities said.

   France recorded its first case, in the far-flung island territory of Reunion 
in the Indian Ocean. Authorities said the patient was a man who had returned to 
Reunion from South Africa and Mozambique on Nov. 20.

   Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States' top infectious disease expert, said 
much more will be known about omicron in the next several weeks, and "we'll 
have a much better picture of what the challenge is ahead of us."

   In the meantime, a WHO official warned that given the growing number of 
omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern 
Africa could soon see infections skyrocket.

   "There is a possibility that really we're going to be seeing a serious 
doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds," 
said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a WHO regional virologist.

   Cases began to increase rapidly in mid-November in South Africa, which is 
now seeing nearly 3,000 confirmed new infections per day.

   Among the other countries with cases confirmed are Britain, 11 European 
Union nations, Australia, Canada and Israel. American disease trackers said 
omicron could already be in the United States, too, and probably will be 
detected soon.

   "I am expecting it any day now," said Scott Becker of the Association of 
Public Health Laboratories. "We expect it is here."

   While the variant was first identified by South African researchers, it is 
unclear where and when it originated, information that could help shed light on 
how fast it spreads.

   The announcement from the Dutch on Tuesday could shape that timeline.

   Previously, the Netherlands said it found the variant among passengers who 
came from South Africa on Friday, the same day the Dutch and other EU members 
began imposing flight bans and other restrictions on southern Africa. But the 
newly identified cases predate that.

   NOS, the Netherlands' public broadcaster, said that one of the two omicron 
samples came from a person who had been in southern Africa.

   Many health officials tried to calm fears, insisting that vaccines remain 
the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots 
to every part of the globe.

   After COVID-19 led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic 
organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese 
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would "certainly bring 
some challenges in terms of prevention and control."

   World markets seesawed on every piece of medical news, whether worrisome or 
reassuring. Stocks fell on Wall Street over virus fears as well as concerns 
about the Federal Reserve's continued efforts to shore up the markets.

   Some analysts think a serious economic downturn will probably be averted 
because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to 
pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been 
dramatically delayed.

   Japan on Wednesday started offering coronavirus vaccine booster shots to 
health care workers amid growing concerns over the new variant.

   Japan's vaccination rollout got off to a slow start but surged from late 
May, and now about 77% of the population has been fully vaccinated -- a main 
reason experts cite for Japan's steady slowing of infections since September.

 
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