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HONG KONG (AP) — Australian officials were racing Sunday to conduct further tests on passengers arriving from southern Africa who tested positive for COVID-19 to determine if they were carrying the omicron variant as nations around the world tightened controls against the worrying new strain.

Neighboring New Zealand announced it was restricting travel from nine southern African countries because of the threat posed by the variant, and Japan widened its border controls to include more countries from the region.

Tourist-dependent Thailand, which only recently began loosening its tight border restrictions to leisure travelers from certain countries, announced a ban of its own on visitors from eight African counties. Similar restrictions took effect in the business hub of Singapore, which is barring entry and transit to anyone with a recent history of travel to seven southern African nations.

The tighter restrictions in the Asia-Pacific region echoed steps rapidly taken by countries around the world to limit the spread of the omicron variant just days after it was identified by researchers in South Africa. The act first, ask questions later approach reflected growing alarm about the emergence of a potentially more contagious variant nearly two years into a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people, upended lives and disrupted economies across the globe.

While much remains to be learned about the new variant, researchers are concerned that it may be more resistant to the protection provided by vaccines and could mean that the pandemic lasts for longer than anticipated.

Cases involving the omicron variant have already been confirmed on multiple continents, with Germany, Italy, Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong all reporting cases in recent days.

The United States’ top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant was already in the U.S., too.

“We have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility … it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over,” Fauci said on NBC television.

In Australia, the New South Wales health department said Sunday that urgent genomic testing was being done on samples taken from two passengers who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa the day before and tested positive on arrival.

The department said the travelers were from one of nine African countries that are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival in Sydney. The countries are South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Malawi and the Seychelles.

New Zealand’s COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the island nation was taking a precautionary approach. From late Sunday, only New Zealand citizens from nine African countries will be allowed entry to New Zealand, and they will be required to spend two weeks in a quarantine hotel run by the military.

Hipkins said officials were confident the variant hadn’t entered New Zealand and they were well placed to keep it out.

Many countries have slapped restrictions on various southern African countries over the past couple of days, including Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran and the U.S., in response to warnings over the transmissibility of the new variant. This goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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Ex-Malaysia PM: US-led trade group intended to isolate China

TOKYO (AP) — Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized a new U.S.-led economic grouping on Friday, saying it is intended to isolate China, and won’t benefit regional economic growth without Beijing.

U.S. President Joe Biden launched the 13-nation Indo-Pacific Economic Framework during a visit to Japan earlier this week. He said it will help the United States work more closely with Asian countries in areas including supply chains, digital trade, clean energy and anticorruption.

“The U.S. will always want to use groupings like this in order to isolate China,” Mahathir said at an international conference in Tokyo. “Many countries recognize that this is not an economic grouping but it is truly a political grouping.”

The signatories are Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. Together they represent 40% of the world’s GDP.

“This is not good for their own economic development,” Mahathir said of the countries in the grouping.

“China is a big trading partner for Malaysia, we don’t want to see any tension, any conflict with China and we hope that the U.S. will realize that China is there, it’s not going to disappear, and we have to live with China, which is now richer than most countries in the world,” he said at “The Future of Asia,” a conference organized by Nikkei Inc.

Mahathir, 96, who served as Malaysia’s fourth and seven prime ministers, was seen for many years as a de facto spokesperson for less developed countries and frequently criticized the West. He remains an influential figure in Malaysia.

He led an opposition coalition to a historic election victory in 2018 that ousted a corruption-tainted government in the first peaceful transfer of power since Malaysia’s independence in 1957.

Mahathir became the world’s oldest leader at 92 but his rule lasted only 22 months as his government collapsed due to infighting. Mahathir formed a new ethnic Malay party in 2020 to oppose the new leadership.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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