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Omicron variant of Covid-19 spreads to 24 countries as US and UAE join list

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The new Omicron variant of Covid-19 has now spread to 24 countries as of Wednesday, with the U.S. becoming the latest country to confirm a traveller who tested positive for the highly mutated strain

The new Omicron variant of Covid-19 has now spread to 24 countries as of Wednesday, with the U.S. becoming the latest country to confirm a traveller who tested positive for the highly mutated strain.

The United States has barred nearly all foreigners who have been in one of eight southern African countries.

The countries in which the omicron variant has been found include the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Botswana, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, Germany, Israel, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Israel and the Netherlands. The UAE also reported its first case on Wednesday, the second Gulf country after Saudi Arabia.

Heavily mutated Omicron is rapidly becoming the dominant variant of the coronavirus in South Africa less than four weeks after it was first detected there, and the United States on Wednesday became the latest country to identify an Omicron case within its borders.

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.

The person had mild symptoms and was in self-quarantine, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease official, told journalists at White House briefing.

According to a Reuters report, the airlines in the United States have been told to hand over to the authorities the names of passengers arriving from parts of southern Africa hit by Omicron.

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.

It said 74% of all the virus genomes it had sequenced last month had been of the new variant.

World Health Organization (WHO) epidemiologist Maria van Kerkhove said at a press conference that data on how contagious Omicron was should be available "within days." Earlier the WHO had said that it would take some weeks to arrive at a conclusion.

WHO director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters Wednesday while the agency takes the spread of omicron “extremely seriously,” the new variant “should not surprise us, as this is what viruses do and will continue to do as long as we allow it to continue spreading.” He was referring to large unvaccinated populations.

"Prepare for the worst, hope for the best," Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said at a news conference.

She said that full vaccination and a booster shot provided the strongest possible protection, according to scientists. The EU brought forward the start of its vaccine rollout for 5-to-11-year-olds by a week to Dec. 13.

Britain and the United States have both expanded their booster programs in response to the new variant.