The first suspected cases of the Omicron Covid variant in Germany and the Czech Republic are being investigated on Saturday as Dutch authorities scramble to see if 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for Covid-19 have the new variant.
Omicron has been designated a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation (WHO), and has reached Belgium after being discovered in South Africa. The WHO warned that preliminary evidence suggests the variant has an increased risk of reinfection and may spread more rapidly than other strains.
In Germany, a minister in the western state of Hesse said on Saturday that the variant had probably arrived after mutations were found in a passenger arriving from South Africa.
“Last night several Omicron-typical mutations were found in a traveller returning from South Africa,” tweeted Kai Klose, social affairs minister in Hesse, home to Frankfurt airport, Germany’s biggest hub and one of Europe’s busiest airports.
He added that a full sequencing of the variant was being carried out and that the person was isolating, and he urged anyone who had travelled from South Africa in the last few weeks to limit contacts and get tested.
The Czech Republic is examining a suspected Omicron case detected in a person who spent time in Namibia.
“A lab is checking a possible find of a positive specimen of the Omicron variant. We are awaiting confirmation or refutation of the case,” a spokesperson for the National Institute of Public Health said on Saturday.
The emergence of the potentially more contagious variant of Covid-19 has led to many countries implementing travel bans from southern African countries.
Joe Biden on Friday confirmed the United States will bar entry to most travellers from eight southern African countries starting on Monday, following similar moves from states in the EU and elsewhere.
The restrictions apply to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
The US travel restrictions do not ban flights or apply to US citizens and lawful US permanent residents.
No cases of the Omicron variant were identified in the United States to date, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday. The agency expects that it would quickly identify the variant, also known as B.1.1.529, if it emerges in the country.
Thailand also announced a ban on travel from the eight countries, beginning in December, following other Asian countries including Japan in tightening border rules.
In the UK, flights were banned from six countries – South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe – which were added to its travel red list. Passengers arriving in the UK from these countries from 4am on Sunday will be required to book and pay for a Government-approved hotel quarantine for 10 days.
In the case of the United States, most non-US citizens who have been in the eight affected countries within the prior 14 days will not be allowed enter. Many bans announced around the world kick in immediately, unlike those issued by Mr Biden.
The United States only lifted the travel curbs on 33 countries including South Africa, China, much of Europe, India, Brazil, Ireland, Britain and Iran on November 8th, after blocking the entry of most foreign nationals who had recently been in those countries since beginning in early 2020.
A White House official told Reuters the decision to implement the rules from Monday was due to procedures that had to be done before such a ban could be put in place, including working with transportation authorities and airlines.
Dutch health authorities have said 61 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for Covid-19, and tests for the Omicron variant among the people infected were being conducted.
About 600 passengers arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on the two KLM flights on Friday and then faced hours of delays and testing due to concerns over the new virus variant.
The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday. Health Minister Hugo de Jonge determined that passengers already en route to the Netherlands would have to undergo testing and quarantine upon arrival.
Meanwhile, a number of pharmaceutical firms have said they are working to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of Omicron.
Experts at the WHO said there is early evidence to suggest Omicron has an “increased risk of reinfection” and its rapid spread in South Africa suggests it has a “growth advantage”.
Novavax said it has “already initiated development of a new recombinant spike protein based on the known genetic sequence of B.1.1.529 and will have it ready to begin testing and manufacturing within the next few weeks”.
Moderna said: “Since early 2021, Moderna has advanced a comprehensive strategy to anticipate new variants of concern.
“This strategy includes three levels of response should the currently authorized 50µg booster dose of mRNA-1273 prove insufficient to boost waning immunity against the Omicron variant.”
Pfizer and BioNTech said that in the event of a variant which could escape the effects of the vaccines, the firm expects “to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval”.
AstraZeneca said it has “developed, in close collaboration with Oxford University, a vaccine platform that enables us to respond quickly to new variants that may emerge” and is “already conducting research in locations where the variant has been identified”.
The firm is also testing its antibody combination drug against the new variant and is “hopeful” it “will retain efficacy since it comprises two potent antibodies with different and complementary activities against the virus”. – Reuters/PA/Guardian