Portugal has become the latest country to confirm cases of the Omicron Covid super-variant, as the WHO warned the new strain poses a ‘very high’ risk to the global pandemic recovery.
Thirteen cases of the new variant were reported on Monday in players and staff of Lisbon football club Belenenses, coming after defender Cafu Phete travelled to South Africa to play for the national team then tested positive after returning 10 days ago. Team bosses said 44 players and staff are now in isolation awaiting tests.
Belenenses played against Benfica on Saturday with just nine men because the rest were isolating. Just seven returned to the pitch after half time, with the game then abandoned with Benfica leading 7-0. Both teams said the match should have been postponed, blaming league bosses and health chiefs for allowing it to go ahead.
The news came as the WHO said the likelihood of the new variant spreading to more countries is ‘very high’ and that several of its mutations are known to be linked with high transmission rates and the ability to dodge some vaccine protection.
‘If another major surge of Covid-19 takes place driven by Omicron, consequences may be severe,’ it said, concluding that ‘the overall global risk related to the new [variant] Omicron is assessed as very high.’
In an attempt to slow the spread of the new variant, Japan slammed its borders shut on Monday – banning all foreign citizens from arriving just weeks after allowing them entry. The ban will take effect from midnight, with citizens returning from some countries told to quarantine.
Meanwhile Australia said it will delay reopening its border to visa holders and skilled workers, a move that was due to come into force from December 1. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the delay – due to last for two weeks – is ‘necessary’ while the government collects more data on the variant.
The Philippines also said it will temporarily suspend plans to allow fully vaccinated tourists into the country, fearful of importing the super-mutated strain because most of its population remains unjabbed.Fully vaccinated tourists were due to be allowed into the Philippines from Wednesday. It is not clear when they will now be allowed in.
Omicron, which was first identified in South Africa but is thought to have originated in Botswana, is the most-mutated form of Covid yet found and has been declared a ‘variant of concern’ by the WHO because early data suggests it is more-infectious than the Delta strain and may have an increased ability to infect vaccinated people.
But data is limited to just a few dozen cases and huge question marks remain, including whether Omicron causes more serious disease as well as being more infectious. Dr Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who treated the first known cases, has said that so-far the symptoms seem milder than the Delta variant.