A nurse in China prepares to administer the Sinovac vaccine. As a new Covid variant is identified, the need for masks and jabs are not going to go away any time soon. Photo: AFP / George Calvelo / NurPhoto

SEOUL – Japan announced on Monday that it will – from Tuesday – ban the entry of all incoming travelers in a bid to keep the newly identified variant of Covid-19 at bay.

The move by the world’s third-largest economy is one of a number of swift national responses to a new mutation of Covid-19 that, according to some early indications, could be more dangerous than the Delta variant.

The new variant is casting a new and very unwelcome shadow over a fast-vaccinating world that had been hoping to leave Covid-19 behind in 2022.

The World Health Organization called Omicron, which appeared in Botswana and has been identified by researchers in South Africa, a “variant of concern.” Still, the global health organization was hedging its bets.  

“It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants, including Delta,” the WHO wrote on its website on Sunday, adding: “It is not yet clear whether infection with Omicron causes more severe disease compared to infections with other variants, including Delta.”

Also on Sunday, Reuters cited a South African doctor as saying that those with the variant were suffering “very mild symptoms.”  

But that is only one early indication. The WHO, which has not recommended border closures, noted that “understanding the level of severity of the Omicron variant will take days to several weeks.”

That “understanding” is something the world will be watching for with enormous interest.

Meanwhile, the WHO’s holding statement and the reports of mild symptoms appear to have garnered less attention than early findings from a US epidemiologist that were, over the weekend, picked up by media around the world.

“My god – [the new Omricon variant] being possibly – 500% more competitively infectious is the most staggering stat yet,” tweeted epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists on Friday.

“It is really bad,” he added.

Kyushu University students in Fukuoka City wear face masks, keep social distance and check their body temperatures amid persistent pandemic fears. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Japan closes its doors

Japan’s response appears to be more informed by Feigl-Ding than by the WHO.  

On Monday, in a step that will take effect from Tuesday, Tokyo said it was banning the entry of all foreign nationals from around the world, according to Associated Press reports from Japan.

“We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said.

He may be considering his own position. Kishida’s two predecessors as premier, Yoshihide Suga and Shinzo Abe, had both faced significant criticism over their lax handling of the pandemic. Both resigned.

The move is a shock reversal of course for a country that, having successfully hosted a very high-risk Summer Olympics with minimal infections, and accelerated its formerly slow-moving national vaccination drive, seemed to be heading for the Covid-19 exit ramp.

In early November, Japan had re-opened its borders to foreigners after a long-running entry ban, though foreign tourists are still prevented from visiting.

The announcement was a particularly painful blow for one foreign resident in Japan who had bought tickets to the US to visit family for “a New York Christmas.”

“Just this weekend, optimism for a post-Covid world was more than palpable,” he told Asia Times. “I took a bullet train back from a suddenly crowded and buoyant Kyoto – tourism was back and the ‘Go To Travel’ program was set to return at the start of 2022.”

‘Go To Travel” is a central-government program designed to boost the flailing leisure and tourism sector by subsidizing domestic travel by the Japanese. It was started in July 2020, then suspended in December, as waves of Covid hit Japan. Kishida announced on November 10 that it would restart as early as January.

“Cue the loud screeching noise … foreigner arrivals are being banned,” the foreign source added. “Things are calm on the streets here, but Tokyo has seen the movie before: As Covid cases return, so will the state of emergency.”

Variant escapes Africa, fear spreads

Japan is not the only nation pressing the panic button. As fear spreads across the world, other governments are scrambling to restrict incoming travelers.

In neighboring South Korea on Sunday, Seoul started to restrict visa issuances and arrivals from eight African nations, including South Africa, where Omicron had been identified.

Singapore and the UK have taken similar steps. Elsewhere, tougher moves have already been announced. In addition to Japan, Israel is banning entry to foreigners, while Morocco is suspending all incoming flights for two weeks. Multiple countries are adding new restrictions in an ongoing process.

But there is an element of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted, given that measures to keep the variant bottled up on the African continent have already failed.

According to an AP report from the Hague on Monday, Omicron has already been identified on different sides of the planet, including in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong and the Netherlands.

The development of a super mutant strain of Covid appearing in the Global South had, in fact, been predicted.

Dr Jerome Kim, who heads the Seoul-based International Vaccine Institute, told Asia Times in March that “one of the great unknowns is what is happening in parts of the world without good monitoring.”

Kim cited sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and parts of Latin America as areas that not only suffered from lower access to vaccines than the Global North, but also lacked the same quality of monitoring mechanisms available in richer countries.

In such areas, “explosive outbreaks are what generate viral mutations,” he said. Kim’s warning then continues to ring true: he defined the key metrics of mankind’s fight against Covid-19 as “… a race between vaccinations and the development of mutations.”