First Omicron case in U.S. adds to global alarm over virus variant

(LANKAPUVATH | COLOMBO) – Fears over the impact of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus rose on Thursday after the first case was reported in the United States and the Japanese central bank warned of economic pain as countries respond with tighter containment measures.

The first known U.S. case was a fully vaccinated person in California who returned to the United States from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive seven days later.

President Joe Biden is working on the U.S. strategy for fighting COVID-19 this winter and sources briefed on the matter told Reuters one step will be extending requirements for travelers to wear masks through mid-March. A formal announcement is expected on Thursday, the sources said.

The White House also plans to announce stricter testing rules for international visitors.

Airlines in the United States were told to hand over the names of passengers arriving from parts of southern Africa hit by Omicron, according to a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention letter seen by Reuters.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, which was first found on Nov. 8 in South Africa and has spread to at least two dozen countries.

Top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci on Wednesday said it could take two weeks or more to gain insight into how easily the variant spreads, the severity of the illness that it causes, and whether it can evade currently available vaccines.

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said early epidemiological data suggested Omicron was able to evade some immunity, but existing vaccines should still protect against severe disease and death.

World Health Organization (WHO) epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove told a briefing that data should be available “within days” on Omicron’s contagiousness.

BioNTech’s CEO said the vaccine it makes in a partnership with Pfizer (PFE.N) was likely to offer strong protection against severe disease from Omicron.

Early indications suggesting Omicron may be markedly more contagious than previous variants have rattled financial markets, fearful that new restrictions could choke off a tentative recovery from the economic ravages of the pandemic.

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