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UN concerned about isolating African nations over Omicron variant

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres listens to a question during a joint press conference with Colombia's president, at the Presidential Palace in Bogota, Colombia, on Nov. 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

NEW YORK (Kyodo) -- U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Monday expressed concern over the possible impacts of travel restrictions imposed against nations in southern Africa by some countries aiming to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant of the novel coronavirus.

    "I am now deeply concerned about the isolation of southern African countries due to new COVID-19 travel restrictions," Guterres said in a statement, while praising South Africa for quickly identifying and reporting the emergence of the new variant.

    His statement comes as some countries scramble to tighten border controls, with Japan banning for a month new entries by foreigners from any country, while the United States has prohibited the entry of foreigners from South Africa and seven other countries in the region.

    "The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa -- and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world," the U.N. chief said, noting that low vaccination rates are "a breeding ground for variants."

    Guterres urged countries around the world to conduct repeated COVID-19 tests for travelers and take other effective measures to avoid the risk of transmission "so as to allow for travel and economic engagement."

    Concerns are growing over the Omicron variant, which was first reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa last week and has since been confirmed in Europe and elsewhere.

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