LONDON – A new, more contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus emerged in more European countries on Saturday, just days after being identified in South Africa, prompting governments around the world to Try to stop the spread.
The UK on Saturday tightened mask-wearing regulations and tested international arrivals after detecting two cases. New cases were confirmed Saturday in Germany and Italy, with Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong also reporting that the variant had been found in travellers.
In the US, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said he wouldn’t be surprised if the Omicron variant was also present in the US.
“We haven’t detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this level of spread…
Due to concerns that the new variant may be resistant to vaccine protection, there is growing concern around the world that the pandemic and the restrictions associated with containment will outlive expectations. .
Nearly two years since the beginning of a pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 5 million people around the world, countries are on high alert. Many have imposed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa as they seek to buy time to assess whether the Omicron variant is likely to travel further than the current delta variant.
In the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said “preventive and targeted measures” needed to be taken after two people tested positive for the new variant in the UK.
“Right now, it is a responsible action to slow the seeding and spread of this new variant and to maximize our defenses,” he said at a press conference. he said at a press conference.
Among the measures announced, Johnson said anyone arriving in the UK must take a PCR test for COVID-19 on the second day of arrival and self-isolate until the test results are negative. And if someone tests positive for the Omicron variant, he said their close contacts will have to self-isolate for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status – current close contacts are exempt from the quarantine rules if they are fully vaccinated.
He also said the wearing of masks in shops and on public transport would be required and said the group of independent scientists advising the UK government on the rollout of a coronavirus vaccine had were asked to accelerate the vaccination program. This may involve extending the booster program to younger age groups, reducing the interval between the second and booster doses, and allowing older children to receive a second dose.
“From today, we will step up the reinforcement campaign,” he said.
The UK Department of Health said the two cases found in the UK were related and linked to travel from southern Africa. One of the two new cases occurred in the town of Brentwood, in southeastern England, while the other was in the central city of Nottingham. Two confirmed cases are self-isolating from their households while contact tracing and targeted testing take place.
The British government also added four more countries – Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia – to the country’s tourism red list from Sunday. Six others – Botswana, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe – were added on Friday. That means anyone allowed to come from those destinations will have to quarantine.
Many countries have imposed restrictive measures on various South African countries in the past few days, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, to responding to warnings about the potential spread of the new variant. This goes against the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned of any overreaction before the variant has been thoroughly studied.
Despite the flight ban, there are concerns that this variant has been widespread around the world.
Italy and Germany are the latest countries to report confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.
An Italian who had been to Mozambique on business landed in Rome on 11 November and returned to his home near Naples. Italian news agency LaPresse said he and five family members, including two school-age children, had tested positive. All are in isolation in the Naples suburb of Caserta in good condition with mild symptoms.
The variant was confirmed by the Sacco hospital in Milan, and Italy’s National Institutes of Health said the man had received two doses of the vaccine. The Italian Ministry of Health is calling on all regions to intensify virus tracing and sequencing to detect cases of the new variant first identified in South Africa.
In Germany, the Max von Pettenkofer Institute, a microbiology center based in Munich, said the Omicron variant had been confirmed in two travelers who arrived on a flight from South Africa on Nov. 24, the head of the institute , Oliver Keppler, said that genome. The German news agency dpa reported that it “has been proven with certainty that it is a variant”.
The Dutch Institute of Public Health said the Omicron variant “could be found in some tested individuals” who were isolated after arriving in Amsterdam on Friday on two flights from South Africa. The institute said in a statement that further sequencing analysis is underway to ascertain that it is the new variant. Results were expected on Sunday. A total of 61 people were tested.
Israel says it has detected a new strain of bacteria in a traveler returning from Malawi and is monitoring 800 recent return travelers from South African countries. And Australia said early Sunday its scientists were working to determine if two people who tested positive for COVID after arriving from southern Africa were infected with the Omicron variant. are not.
The rapid spread of this variant among young people in South Africa has alarmed health experts, although there is no immediate indication whether the variant is causing more severe illness.
Several pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, said they planned to adapt their vaccines ahead of the arrival of Omicron. Pfizer and partner BioNTech say they hope to be able to tailor their vaccine in about 100 days.
Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective in preventing serious illness from the variant. Omicron, note that most mutations appear in regions similar to those in other variants.
He told the BBC: “At least from a speculative point of view, we have some optimism that the vaccine will still work against a new variant of the fatal disease, but really we need wait a few weeks for that to be confirmed.
Some experts say the appearance of this variant illustrates how rich countries hoarding vaccines risk prolonging the pandemic.
Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of healthcare workers and vulnerable people have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up the spread of the virus, creating more opportunities for the virus to develop into a dangerous variant.
Professor Peter Openshaw said: “One of the main factors leading to the emergence of possible variants is low vaccination rates in parts of the world and WHO warns that none of us are safe. until we are all safe and in need of attention. of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke Saturday with his South African counterpart, Naledi Pandor, and they emphasized the importance of working together to help African nations vaccinate their populations. them, the State Department said in a statement. It said Blinken praised South African scientists for quickly identifying the Omicron variant and for the government’s transparency in sharing this information, “which should serve as a model for the world .”
(Geir Moulson in Berlin, Mike Corder in The Hague, Netherlands, Colleen Barry in Milan, Lynn Berry in Washington, and Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.)