Two cases identified in Great Britain after a first in Belgium, a suspected case in Germany, around sixty passengers under surveillance on their arrival in Amsterdam from South Africa: concern grew on Saturday November 27 in Europe towards the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, and the world continued its isolation from southern Africa. “Two cases of Covid-19 comprising mutations compatible with B.1.1.529 have been identified in the United Kingdom”, announced the British Department of Health, specifying that these “two British cases of the Omicron variant” were linked and had were identified after “a trip to southern Africa”, where the variant was first identified this week.
Germany has announced a first suspected case, that of a passenger who arrived at Frankfurt airport from South Africa. “The Omicron variant is, in all likelihood, already present in Germany,” tweeted Regional Minister of Social Affairs Kai Klose. The full analysis of the results is expected in the coming days. Friday, after a first case detected in Belgium in a young woman who arrived from Egypt via Turkey, the European Union health agency had increased the concern by stressing that this new variant B.1.1.529 represented a risk “high to very high” for Europe.
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A case of this variant deemed “worrying” by the World Health Organization (WHO) was also reported in Hong Kong, one in Israel in a person returning from Malawi and another in Botswana. In the Netherlands, 61 passengers on two flights arriving in Amsterdam from Johannesburg on Friday tested positive for Covid-19 and placed in quarantine, according to the Dutch health authority, which is looking for the possible presence of Omicron. According to the WHO expert group, preliminary data on this variant suggests that it presents “an increased risk of reinfection” compared to other variants, including Delta, which is dominant and already highly contagious.
South Africa feels “punished”
On all continents, countries are closing in on southern Africa. Travel restrictions, besides South Africa, apply to Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and in some cases Malawi. South Africa is “punished” for having detected the Omnicron variant, denounced its government on Saturday, “scientific excellence must be applauded and not punished”. As the rest of the world closes its doors, passengers at Johannesburg airport were trying to get back to Europe before it was too late. “We are tired of all this,” railed Ruth Brown, a 25-year-old Briton.
Thursday, US President Joe Biden stressed that the emergence of this new variant showed that “this pandemic will not end without vaccinations at the global level”, calling for more vaccines to be given to poor countries. Since the end of 2019, the Covid-19 has killed at least 5.18 million people worldwide, according to an AFP count.
The United States has banned entry to travelers from southern Africa except US nationals and permanent residents. Canada, Brazil and several Arab countries including Saudi Arabia have also adopted bans. Japan will tighten its entry restrictions, with 10 days of isolation for people from this area. Thailand announced an entry ban from December on Saturday. South Korea will apply visa restrictions and a quarantine from Sunday for passengers from eight countries including South Africa.
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In Europe, the EU has recommended suspending all travel from South Africa and six other countries in the region. Several countries including the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Switzerland have banned flights from these countries. This will apply from Sunday in Russia and Tuesday in Spain. The arrival of the variant comes as Europe is already grappling with a surge in Covid-19 cases and tightening its health restrictions. The Netherlands announced Friday the closure from 4:00 p.m. to 04:00 a.m. GMT of bars, restaurants and non-essential shops.
Fears over the new variant drove oil prices down, with their worst day Friday in 17 months, and stock indexes. The efficacy of vaccines against Omicron is under investigation. A new vaccine could be developed “very quickly”, believes the British scientist who led the research on the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine, Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group. He considered it “extremely unlikely” that this variant would spread strongly in the vaccinated population.
AstraZeneca, like vaccine makers Pfizer / BioNTech, Moderna and Novavax have expressed confidence in their ability to combat the Omicron strain. “It will take” several weeks “to understand the level of transmissibility and virulence of the new variant, however, said the spokesperson for the WHO on Friday. Nearly 54% of the world population has received at least one dose of vaccine against Covid-19, but only 5.6% in low-income countries, according to the Our World in Data website. In South Africa, the most affected country on the continent, only 23.8% of inhabitants are fully vaccinated.
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