Japan announced today that it will suspend entry of all foreign visitors over fear of the Omicron variant spreading.
"We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan," Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. He said the measure will take effect tomorrow .
The decision means Japan will restore border controls that it eased earlier this month for short-term business visitors, foreign students and workers.
Kishida urged people to continue with mask-wearing and other basic anti-virus measures until further details of the new variant are known.
Many countries have moved to tighten their borders even as scientists admit that it's not clear if the new variant is more alarming than other versions of the virus.
The variant was identified days ago by researchers in South Africa, and much is still not known about it, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade the protection of vaccines. But many countries rushed to act, reflecting anxiety about anything that could prolong the pandemic that has killed more than five million people.
Israel decided to bar entry to foreigners while Morocco said it would suspend all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday — among the most drastic of a growing raft of travel curbs being imposed by nations around the world as they scramble to slow the variant's spread. Scientists in several places — from Hong Kong to Europe to North America — have confirmed its presence. The Netherlands reported 13 Omicron cases on Sunday, while both Canada and Australia each found two.
Noting that the variant has already been detected in many countries and that closing borders often has a limited effect, the World Health Organisation called for frontiers to remain open.
Dr Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health in the US, emphasised that there is no data yet that suggests the new variant causes more serious illness than previous Covid-19 variants.
"I do think it's more contagious when you look at how rapidly it spread through multiple districts in South Africa. It has the hallmarks, therefore, of being particularly likely to spread from one person to another. … What we don't know is whether it can compete with Delta," Collins said on CNN's "State of the Union."
Collins echoed several experts in saying the news should make everyone redouble their efforts to use the tools the world already has, including vaccinations, booster shots and measures such as mask-wearing.
The Dutch public health authority confirmed that 13 people who arrived from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for Omicron. They were among 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam's Schiphol airport before a flight ban was implemented. They were immediately put into isolation, most at a nearby hotel.
Canada's health minister says the country's first two cases of Omicron were found in Ontario after two individuals who had recently travelled from Nigeria tested positive.
Authorities in Australia said two travellers who arrived in Sydney from Africa became the first in the country to test positive for the new variant. Arrivals from nine African countries are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival. Two German states reported a total of three cases in returning travellers over the weekend.
Israel moved to ban entry by foreigners and mandate quarantine for all Israelis arriving from abroad.
The US plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries from today. "It's going to give us a period of time to enhance our preparedness," top infectious diseases expert Dr Anthony Fauci said of the ban.
Dr Fauci says it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of Omicron, according to a statement from the White House.
South Africa's government responded angrily to the travel bans, which it said are "akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker."
The WHO sent out a statement saying it "stands with African nations" and notes that travel restrictions may play "a role in slightly reducing the spread of Covid-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods." It said if restrictions are put in place, they should be scientifically based and not intrusive.
In Europe, much of which already has been struggling with a sharp increase in cases, officials were on guard.
The UK on Saturday tightened rules on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two Omicron cases, but Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the government was nowhere near reinstituting work from home or more severe social-distancing measures.
"We know now that those types of measures do carry a very heavy price, both economically and socially, in terms of non-Covid health outcomes such as the impact on mental health," he told Sky News.
Meanwhile, Spain has announced it won't admit unvaccinated British visitors from December 1.