W.H.O. Reopens Debate Over Fairness of Pandemic Response

LONDON — As the still-mysterious Omicron variant reached American shores, the World Health Organization on Wednesday scolded wealthy countries that imposed travel bans and dismissed those that poured resources into vaccine booster campaigns when billions in poor countries had yet to receive their first shots.

The comments by W.H.O. officials reopened fraught questions of equity in how the world has handled the coronavirus pandemic since a stark divide over the availability of vaccines emerged between rich and poor countries earlier this year.

But amid fears of a new wave of Covid-19, that seemed unlikely to sway leaders in Europe, Asia, and the United States, which reported its first confirmed Omicron case, in California, on Wednesday. They are scrambling to shield their populations from the variant — about which much remains unknown — by topping up their protection and tightening restrictions on incoming travel.

Travelers reacted with confusion and dismay to news that the United States plans to toughen testing requirements and the screening of inbound passengers. That decision came after Japan, Israel, and Morocco barred foreign travelers and Australia delayed reopening its borders for two weeks.

“It’s a shame because travel just opened up again,” said Giritharan Sripathy, a Singaporean film producer, who was scheduled to fly to New York from London on Thursday. Mr. Sripathy, who had already taken a P.C.R. test three days before his flight, as required, said he had scheduled a new rapid test as a precaution, “in case they change the rules tomorrow.”

Empty check-in desks at Haneda Airport in Tokyo on Tuesday after Japan barred entry to foreigners.Credit…Carl Court/Getty Images

The W.H.O. added its voice to the objections, calling travel restrictions against southern African countries ineffective and unfair.

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the spread of Omicron, and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director general of the W.H.O., said at a news conference in Geneva.

He praised Botswana and South Africa, where the earliest cases of Omicron were detected last month, for promptly reporting the findings to international health authorities. “It is deeply concerning to me that these countries are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing,” he said.

Other W.H.O. officials said the bans on southern African countries by the United States and European countries would impede efforts to combat the variant since biological samples could not be transported out of those countries, even though they were willing to share them. The Omicron variant has been detected in two dozen countries by Wednesday — just six days after its existence was first revealed to the world — and Dr. Tedros warned that the number would rise.

The W.H.O. also voiced skepticism about ambitious booster plans that it claimed come at the expense of first-time vaccinations in less wealthy nations. Britain this week announced a massive new campaign to deliver booster shots to all adults by the end of January. Other European countries and the Biden administration are also pushing these shots as a first line of defense against the variant, buying time for scientists to unravel its genomic code.

Filipinos being observed after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine in Aringay on Wednesday.Credit…Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

W.H.O. officials, however, said there was not yet evidence that boosters prevented illness and hospitalization in people infected with variants. They suggested that the reserve of vaccines stockpiled by Britain and other countries could be better used in places where a large portion of the population was not yet vaccinated.

“It’s a luxurious position to be in, if you have enough vaccine to do that,” said Michael Ryan, the executive director of the W.H.O.’s health emergencies program, referring to the British campaign.

The renewed spotlight on inequities came as the W.H.O.’s member states took the first step toward what many governments hope will be a legally binding treaty to reinforce global defenses against pandemics.

The W.H.O. will set up a negotiating body to begin hammering out an international agreement intended to ensure a more coherent and equitable response to future outbreaks. But the United States and other countries have pushed for a weaker mechanism that would not carry legal obligations for member states.

The patchwork of travel restrictions imposed after the emergence of Omicron highlighted yet again that countries are now determined to act swiftly and unilaterally to protect their populations, with little regard for how it could affect their neighbors or even whether the measures will accomplish their stated goal.

But public-health experts expressed skepticism that the restrictions would prove effective.

Receiving the Pfizer Covid vaccine in Marseille, France.Credit…Daniel Cole/Associated Press

“Travel restrictions can delay importation and widespread seeding, but not stop it,” said Devi Sridhar, head of the global public health program at the University of Edinburgh. “The variant will be found almost everywhere, I’m sure, in the coming days.”

The major unanswered question, she said, was the rate of transmission and whether Omicron could outcompete the Delta variant to establish itself as the dominant strain of the virus.

Professor Sridhar and other experts have called for greater global coordination, and the W.H.O.’s push for an international treaty is a step in that direction. Still, the United States, with support from Brazil and other countries, refused to commit to anything that is legally binding and kept open the possibility of a weaker agreement.

Proponents want commitments to share data, virus samples and technology, and to ensure equitable distribution of vaccines. But that raises politically sensitive questions of national sovereignty over access to the sites of outbreaks, and investigations into origins of diseases. China, for example, has resisted calls for an independent inquiry into the emergence of the coronavirus in the city of Wuhan in late 2019.

The Secretary General of the United Nations, António Guterres, who has described vaccine hoarding by wealthy nations as “an obscenity,” echoed the criticism of the international response to the Omicron scare.

A graffiti mural in the Soweto section of Johannesburg, South Africa, informing residents about the dangers of the coronavirus.Credit…Kim Ludbrook/EPA, via Shutterstock

“The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available to them,” he told reporters after meeting the chairman of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat of Chad. “Nor should they be collectively punished for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world.”

The Coronavirus Pandemic: Key Things to Know

Card 1 of 5

The Omicron variant. The latest Covid-19 variant was identified on Nov. 25 by scientists in South Africa and has since been detected in more than 20 countries, including the U.S., which reported its first case on Dec. 1. Should you be concerned? Here are answers to common questions about this variant.

Travel restrictions and lockdowns. As more Omicron cases emerge globally, countries are responding in varied ways. Japan joined Israel and Morocco in barring all foreign travelers, and Australia delayed reopening its borders for two weeks. The C.D.C plans to increase testing and screening of international fliers to the U.S.

A patchwork of regulations. As the new Omicron variant spread around the world, two KLM flights from South Africa became emblematic of the scattershot and lax global approach to coronavirus containment. Of the more than 60 people who tested positive for the virus, at least 14 had Omicron.

A new type of treatment. An expert panel voted to recommend that the F.D.A. authorize a Covid pill from Merck for high-risk adults, the first in a new class of antiviral drugs that could work against a wide range of variants, including Omicron. The pill could be authorized within days, and available by year’s end.

Vaccine hesitancy in Africa. The detection of the Omicron variant in Africa signals the next stage of the battle against Covid-19: getting more people inoculated in poorer nations. But though vaccine supplies are becoming sufficient, the new hurdle is overcoming local skepticism or outright hostility.

The borderless nature of the virus, Mr. Guterres said, means that “travel restrictions that isolate any one country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive — they are ineffective.”

Although the United States is not weighing the kind of blanket travel ban on foreign visitors imposed by Japan, the restrictions being weighed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States are stirring widespread concern. The agency is considering requiring travelers to provide a negative result from a test taken within 24 hours before departure, a spokesman said on Tuesday night.

Though the C.D.C. has yet to officially announce the changes, the prospect sent travelers searching for updates, booking pre-emptive tests where they could, and scouring airline websites for reservation changes, as the pandemic threatened to upend another December travel season.

Carlos Valencia, a dual Spanish-American citizen whose Seville-based company operates a study abroad program for American students, had planned to return to the United States in January. But he said that he would put the trip on hold until “there is at least some clarity about whether the new rules make a trip feasible.”

Whatever shape the restrictions take, he said, they are “way overdone — especially when you consider how lax the U.S.A. has been with getting people to wear face masks and its own health safety measures.”

Travelers arriving at Newark Liberty International Airport on Tuesday amid concerns about the Omicron variant.Credit…Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Emanuela Giorgetti, a teacher in northern Italy, was hoping to join her fiancé, whom she has not seen for almost two years, for Christmas in Chicago. “When I heard the news,” she said, “I thought, ‘Here we go again.’”

Given the potential threat posed by Omicron, she said she understood the impulse to tighten the rules. But it still seemed unfair.

“We have more vaccinated people in Italy than in the U.S., we wear masks indoors and try to go by the rules,” Ms. Giorgetti said.

Reporting was contributed by Nick Cumming-Bruce, Rick Gladstone, Raphael Minder, Gaia Pianigiani, Michael D. Shear and John Yoon.

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