LONDON — The global risk of the new omicron variant is “very high,” the World Health Organization said Monday, as more countries reported cases of the variant that has sparked worldwide concern that there is more pandemic suffering ahead.
As cases of the variant are confirmed around the world, an increasing number of nations are tightening their borders despite pleas for caution and outbursts of dismay from some.
“Omicron’s very emergence is another reminder that although many of us might think we’re done with Covid-19, it’s not done with us,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, told a special session of the World Health Assembly.
In written advice to its member states, the U.N. agency urged them to accelerate Covid-19 vaccination coverage “as rapidly as possible,” particularly among high-priority groups, and to enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts.
“Omicron has an unprecedented number of spike mutations, some of which are concerning for their potential impact on the trajectory of the pandemic,” the body said in the report it tweeted out. “If another major surge of Covid-19 takes place driven by omicron, consequences may be severe.”
The WHO’s advice came as more countries reported cases of the new variant, which was first detected in southern Africa last week. The Scottish government said Monday that six cases of omicron had been identified in Scotland.
Meanwhile, health officials in Portugal said the country had detected 13 cases among team members of a professional soccer club, according to The Associated Press.
The Ricardo Jorge National Health Institute said that one of those who tested positive at the Lisbon-based Belenenses soccer club had recently traveled to South Africa.
The others had not travelled there, however, suggesting that it may be one of the first recorded cases of local transmission of the virus outside southern Africa.
The variant has now been detected in the U.K., the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Canada, Australia, Israel and Hong Kong, among other countries.
The extent of the actual spread of the omicron variant around the world, however, still remains unclear as countries discover new cases each day. The U.S. has yet to identify any cases but the government’s leading infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and other experts have warned that it could already have made it to America.
Dr. Kavita Patel, NBC News’ medical contributor, said: “It’s already here. We know from previous variants that by the time we pick it up in Africa and the European Union, it’s already likely.”
The U.S. has restricted travel from South Africa and seven neighboring countries.
Also on Monday, Japan announced that it will suspend entry of all foreign visitors, following Israel that became the first country to do so on Sunday. Israel’s government has also promised to use controversial phone-tracking technology to follow and find cases of the new variant.
South Africa’s government has pushed back against the global restrictions imposed on people arriving from South Africa and other countries in the region.
Its foreign ministry has said the measures were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said in a statement.
Despite the global alarm there is still little understanding about the variant and how virulent it may be.
Scientists have cautioned that it’s still unclear whether omicron is more dangerous than other versions of a virus that has killed more than 5 million people.
Health experts and world leaders are urging populations to get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Global vaccination rates remain uneven, with citizens of some wealthy industrialized countries already being offered booster shots, while lack of access means other nations are struggling to inoculate their populations.
Low-income countries, most of them in Africa, have received just 0.6 percent of all vaccines, according to Tedros.
The Associated Press contributed.