Fear grows over new variant stronger than Delta

Arrivals from overseas undergo quarantine procedures at Incheon International Airport, Sunday, amid concerns over the inflow of the Omicron variant into the nation. Korea Times photo by Hong In-ki

Gov't bans entry from 8 African nations

By Bahk Eun-ji

Concerns are growing over the possible spread of a new COVID-19 variant here, following rapid overseas transmission of the Omicron mutation which is believed to be stronger than the currently dominant Delta strain.

Although its potential threat is yet to be known compared with other strains, experts are urging the government to take as strong measures as possible to prevent the inflow of the new variant, designated as a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization, given that the country's antivirus response is already facing challenges amid a surge of infections in recent weeks.

As the first step of its preventive measures, the government started to ban entry to Korea of foreign nationals from eight African countries from Sunday. Those nations are South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Nationals of the countries are denied visa issuance for Korea, except for very limited cases such as attending a relative's funeral.

Those from the countries who try to enter Korea through a stopover at a third country are also not allowed. Currently, there are no direct flights between Korea and these eight countries.

For Korean nationals living abroad in the countries, they must be quarantined at isolated living facilities for 10 days even if they have been vaccinated or tested negative in a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test.

No Omicron variant cases have been reported in Korea yet, while it has been reported in several countries outside Africa.

"It is said the Omicron cases in Hong Kong, the U.K. and Italy were from African nations including South Africa and Mozambique," an official of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters said, Sunday. "We'll keep monitoring on the risk level and the speed of transmission of the variant, and expand the countries to ban entry if necessary."

Health authorities said they plan to develop and distribute a PCR test method that can detect the Omicron variant.

In the meantime, health experts warn that the number of daily new cases could rise as high as 100,000 next year in the worst-case scenario. Currently the nation is seeing around 4,000 daily new infections.

"If we fail to control the current virus spreading trend, the number of daily cases can reach 25,000 in the first half of next year, and in the worst case, 80,000 to 100,000 people will be confirmed a day," Jung Jae-hun, an assistant professor of Gachon University's preventive medicine department, said in a recent meeting with Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae at the Government Complex Seoul, Thursday.

Jung also said the government needs to persuade people in the age group of 12 to 17 to get vaccinated, while actively procuring oral treatments for COVID-19.

Bahk Eun-ji ejb@koreatimes.co.kr

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