The Fijian Government says it has strengthened its strict conditions for entry for incoming travellers from red list countries in response to the newly-reported Omicron variant of COVID-19.
Permanent Secretary for Health, Doctor James Fong says they are monitoring the Omicron variant closely as it has been shown to carry significant mutations that could spell higher rates of transmissibility and virulence.
Doctor Fong says this new variant is a reminder that for as long as there is a pandemic, Fiji will continue to face a threat from the virus and its variants.
He says the most important step every Fijian can take in response to this variant is to become fully vaccinated and encourage others around us to do the same.
Doctor Fong says we have one of the highest rates of vaccine coverage in the world but Fiji is safest when we achieve as close to 100% coverage as possible, and we must continue to adhere closely to the other health protection measures we know can limit the spread, including good handwashing, mask-wearing and physical distancing.
He says the Ministry of Health and Medical Services is currently establishing genomic sequencing capacity within the Fiji Centre for Disease Control to process any positive samples of concern.
Doctor Fong also says the Ministry is currently administering booster doses to front line health officials and will soon deploy booster doses of COVID-19 vaccines to vulnerable members of the public.
Doctor Fong says they commend South Africa on identifying and publishing the first information on this new variant.
He says so far, field evidence does suggest higher transmissibility however, more study is needed to determine if transmissibility is truly increased, if the variant is less responsive to natural and vaccine-induced immunity, and if the disease caused by the variant is more severe.
Doctor Fong says the process of risk assessment for our red list and Travel Partner Countries was developed with the knowledge that new variants of the virus were highly likely to be detected.
He says it analyses factors such as country vaccine coverage and rates of community transmission.
Doctor Fong says they will continue to rely on that assessment process moving forward.
For Fijians located in red list countries, which have always included the Southern African States, the measures for incoming travellers are that travellers must be fully vaccinated with one of Fiji’s approved vaccines; travellers must undergo escalated pre-departure protocols, which include self-isolation for the five days prior to travel under the oversight of the employer or sponsor and test negative on day 5 and within 72 hours prior to departure; and on arrival to Fiji, the quarantine period for travellers from red list countries will increase to 14 days with a PCR test done on arrival on day 5 and on day 12.
Doctor Fong says the Fijian Government will maintain the entry conditions for tourism arrivals from Travel Partner Countries, which include requirements such as full vaccination with an approved COVID-19 vaccine, a negative COVID-19 PCR test result taken 72 hours prior to departure, a 2-night stay in a Care-Fiji Certified hotel, and an additional COVID-19 test on Day 2 after arrival.
The same conditions apply for returning residents and those visiting friends and relatives, with the exception that they are required to spend three nights after arrival in a Care-Fiji Certified hotel.
He says the preference of the Ministry of Health and Medical Services is that travellers from red list countries go to a listed Travel Partner Country for ten days prior to travelling to Fiji. However, he says given some international border restrictions, particularly in Southern Africa, they understand some Fijian citizens and residents may need to book travel directly to Fiji.
Doctor Fong says the Ministry of Foreign Affairs will provide advice on a process for the public to help them by providing information on citizens in Southern Africa so those citizens can be registered and assisted to adhere with the strict conditions for entry.
Nations in southern Africa protested bitterly today as more of the world’s wealthiest countries cut them off from travel, renewing a debate over border closures from the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic and compounding the problems facing poorly vaccinated countries.
The New York Times reports a new coronavirus variant called Omicron, first detected in Botswana, put governments on edge after South Africa announced a surge of cases this week, plunging countries into the most uncertain moment of the pandemic since the highly contagious Delta variant took hold this spring.
As in the early days of Delta, political alarm spread quickly across the world, with officials trading blame over how the failures of the global vaccination effort were allowing the virus to mutate, even as researchers warned that the true threat of the new variant was not yet clear.
Bearing a worrying number of mutations that researchers fear could make it spread easily, Omicron was spotted this weekend in patients in Britain, Germany and Italy, leaving in its wake what scientists estimated to be thousands of cases in southern Africa and tens or hundreds more globally.
One nation after another shut its doors to southern Africa even as they spurned public health measures that scientists said were far more urgently needed to take on the new variant.
Australia, Thailand and Sri Lanka are among the latest countries to join the United States, Britain and the European Union in banning travellers from South Africa and nearby countries.
Israel announced the world’s strictest ban to date, sealing its borders to all foreigners for 14 days after one case was confirmed in the country.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennet of Israel says the key here is caution and minimal risks until they know more.
Health officials in the Netherlands announced that 61 passengers on two flights from South Africa had tested positive for the virus, the latest indication of how difficult it might be to stop the variant from crossing borders.
The cascade of travel closures triggered a wave of resentment among Africans who believed that the continent was yet again bearing the brunt of panicked policies from Western countries, which had failed to deliver vaccines and the resources needed to administer them.
Scientists said richer countries, having already hoarded vaccines for much of 2021, were now penalizing parts of the world that they had starved of shots in the first place. Francois Venter, a researcher at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg says told you so, referring to warnings from African researchers that delaying vaccinations there risked the emergence of new variants.
Scientists worried that the restrictions would discourage other nations from reporting variant cases, out of fear of being slapped with travel bans.
Border closures have provoked debate during a succession of public health crises, including the Ebola outbreak in 2014, with global health officials warning that such bans can interrupt the flow of medical supplies and do economic damage that makes countries reluctant to report health threats.
The chaotic introduction of the closures in Amsterdam on Friday left some 600 passengers on two flights from South Africa crammed into planes and then unventilated rooms for about 30 hours.
Those who avoided hotel quarantines by testing negative scattered to other destinations after receiving results around 3am Saturday.
Experts say the border closures would wreak havoc in African countries that were counting on reopening.
In South Africa, December is traditionally the high season for tourism, one of the country’s biggest industries, and operators had been banking on a surge in visitors from Britain, which had removed South Africa from its “red list” only last month.
South Africa’s number of daily infections — 2,828 on Friday — was a small fraction of case counts in countries with similarly sized populations, like Germany and Britain, not to mention the United States.
Just over 10 percent of people in Africa have received one dose of a vaccine, compared with 64 percent in North America and 62 percent in Europe.
For the countries imposing travel bans, scientists said, far more consequential than delaying the arrival of new Omicron cases was the question of what they would do with whatever time they had bought themselves to respond.
With the emergence of the Omicron COVID-19 variant, which has now been detected in southern Africa, Europe, Israel and Hong Kong, a number of pharmaceutical firms are announcing they have plans in place to adapt their vaccines if necessary.
WBNS reports scientists say there is still much to learn about the new variant, which the World Health Organization has listed a "variant of concern."
They know that Omicron is genetically distinct from previous variants including the Beta and Delta variants, but do not know if these genetic changes make it any more transmissible or dangerous.
So far, there is no indication the variant causes more severe disease.
It will also likely take weeks to sort out if Omicron is more infectious and if vaccines are still effective against it.
AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer say they already have plans to react.
Pfizer and its partner BioNTech say they have been monitoring for potential variants capable of evading its mRNA vaccine.
Pfizer says in the event that vaccine-escape variant emerges, Pfizer and BioNTech expect to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval.
Moderna says it has been developing a strategy since early 2021 to respond to new variants of concern and has identified three response options.
Times of India reports that the chairwoman of the South African Medical Association Angelique Coetzee says the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus results in mild disease, without prominent syndromes.
The World Health Organization has identified the new South African strain as one of concern, as it is reported to carry a high number of mutations - 32 - which possibly makes it more transmissible and dangerous.
The WHO has dubbed it Omicron, the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.
Coetzee says it presents mild disease with symptoms being sore muscles and tiredness for a day or two not feeling well.
She says so far, they have detected that those infected do not suffer loss of taste or smell.
Coetzee says they might have a slight cough, there are no prominent symptoms and of those infected some are currently being treated at home.
She says at the same time, the situation might be different for the unvaccinated. Coetzee says they will only know this after two weeks.
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