LONDON (AP) – The potentially more contagious omicron variant of COVID-19 was detected in more European countries on Saturday, just days after being identified in South Africa, prompting governments in different nations around the world to attempt action. to stop its spread.
On Saturday, the UK tightened rules on the use of masks and testing of people arriving in the country, after detecting two cases of the new variant.
News reports in Italy and Germany indicated that the authorities of both countries confirmed infections of the omicron variant of coronavirus. Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong also reported that the variant has been detected in travelers.
Fearing that the new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by existing vaccines, concern is growing worldwide that the pandemic and associated containment restrictions will persist for much longer than expected.
In the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious disease expert, said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant beforehand is found on US soil.
“We have not detected it yet, but when a virus shows this degree of transmission … it will almost always end up spreading everywhere,” Fauci said in an interview with the NBC television network.
Italian news agency LaPresse noted that an Italian who traveled to Mozambique has tested positive for the omicron variant.
The traveler arrived in Rome on November 11 and returned home near Naples. He and five members of his family, including two school-age children, have since tested positive, according to LaPresse. Toso are isolated in the Neapolitan suburb of Caserta in good condition and with mild symptoms.
The variant was confirmed by the Sacco hospital in Milan, and the Italian National Institute of Health announced that the man had received both doses of the vaccine. The Italian Minister of Health has urged authorities in all regions of the country to increase the tracking of the virus.
In Germany, the Max von Pettenkofer Institute, a Munich-based microbiological center, reported that the omicron variant was confirmed in two travelers who arrived on a flight from South Africa on November 24. The director of the institute, Oliver Keppler, said that the genome sequence has not yet been completed, but it has been “without doubt shown to be this variant,” the German news agency dpa reported.
Almost two years after the start of the pandemic, which has caused more than five million deaths worldwide, many countries went on high alert. Many countries in advance imposed travel restrictions on flights from the south of the African continent, trying to buy time to assess whether the omicron variant is more transmissible than the delta, which currently dominates.
In an attempt to stem the spread in the UK, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday that “specific and precautionary measures” were necessary after two people tested positive for the new variant in England.
“At this time, this is the course of responsible action to stop the seeding and spread of this new variant and to maximize our defenses,” Johnson stressed at a news conference.
Among the announced measures, Johnson noted that anyone arriving in England will be required to undergo a mandatory PCR test for COVID-19 on the second day after arrival and to isolate themselves until they give a negative test. If someone tests positive for the omicron variant, their close contacts will have to isolate themselves for 10 days regardless of their vaccination status. Currently, close contacts are exempt from quarantine rules if they are fully vaccinated.
Johnson added that the use of masks will be required in stores and on public transportation. He said the independent group of scientists advising the British government on the launch of coronavirus vaccines has been asked to speed up the vaccination program. This could involve expanding the booster schedule to younger age groups, reducing the time between a second dose and a booster, and allowing older children to receive a second dose.
“Starting today we are going to promote the reinforcement campaign,” he said.
Also on Saturday, the British Health Secretary said two cases of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus had been identified in the country. Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that people tested positive for omicron in the southeastern town of Chelmsford and in the central county of Nottinghamshire. He said the cases were linked to and related to travel from southern Africa.
Many countries, including the United States, Brazil, Canada, Iran, Japan, Thailand, and Australia joined others, such as the European Union and the United Kingdom, in imposing restrictions on flights from southern African countries in response to warnings about the transmissibility of the new variant, even against the advice of the World Health Organization.
Despite the flight ban, there is growing concern that the variant has already been widely seeded around the world.
The Netherlands Institute of Public Health said the omicron variant “is likely to be found in a number of people undergoing tests” who were isolated after arriving in Amsterdam on Friday on two flights from South Africa. The institute added in a statement that it conducts sequential analyzes to determine that it is the new variant. The results are expected to be released on Sunday. The tests were applied to a total of 61 people.
Israel reported that it detected the new strain in a traveler who had returned from Malawi and was tracking 800 travelers who recently returned from southern African countries. And Australia announced Sunday morning that its scientists were working to determine whether two people who tested positive for COVID-19 after arriving from southern Africa were infected with the omicron variant.
Several pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, said they are already planning to adapt their vaccines to the emergence of the omicron variant. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech announced that they expect to be able to adjust their vaccines in approximately 100 days.
The WHO identified the new variant with the name omicron, labeling it a worrisome version due to its high number of mutations and some early evidence that it is more infectious than other variants. That means that people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to contracting the disease again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against omicron.
With so much uncertainty about the omicron and due to the unlikely likelihood of scientists making much progress for just a few weeks, countries around the world have been taking a safety-first approach, knowing that previous outbreaks of the pandemic have been fueled in partly because of lax border policies.
“It seems to be spreading rapidly,” US President Joe Biden said of the new variant on Friday, just a day after he celebrated the resumption of face-to-face gatherings for millions of American families for Thanksgiving. In announcing new travel restrictions, Biden told reporters: “I have decided that we are going to be cautious.”
The Associated Press journalists Geir Moulson in Berlin, Mike Corder in The Hague, The Netherlands; Colleen Barry in Milan, Lynn Berry in Washington, and Fares Akram in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.