The omicron variant was already in the Netherlands when South Africa alerted the World Health Organization about it last week, Dutch health authorities said Tuesday, adding to fear and confusion over the new version of the coronavirus in a weary world hoping it had left the worst of the pandemic behind.
The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute found omicron in samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23. The WHO said South Africa first reported the variant to the UN healthy agency on Nov. 24.
It remains unclear where or when the variant first emerged — but that hasn’t stopped wary nations from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from southern Africa. Those moves have been criticized by South Africa and the WHO has urged against them, noting their limited effect.
Much is still not known about the variant — though the WHO warned that the global risk from the variant is “very high” and early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.
Epidemiological update for 30/11 on the <a href=”https://twitter.com/hashtag/Omicron?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>#Omicron</a> variant: 44 confirmed cases of SARS-CoV-2 Omicron have been reported by eleven EU/EEA countries, according to information from public sources.<br><br>More info:<a href=”https://t.co/0WPE8IgGRy”>https://t.co/0WPE8IgGRy</a>
The Dutch announcement Tuesday further muddies the timeline on when the new variant actually emerged. Previously, the Dutch had said they found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday — but these new cases predate that.
Authorities in the eastern German city of Leipzig, meanwhile, said Tuesday they had confirmed an infection with the omicron variant in a man in his late 30s who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who had been, news agency dpa reported. Leipzig is in the eastern state of Saxony, which currently has Germany’s highest overall coronavirus infection rates.
Meanwhile, Japan and France announced their first cases of the new variant on Tuesday.
French authorities confirmed its presence in the French island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. Patrick Mavingui, a microbiologist at the island’s research clinic for infectious diseases, said the person who has tested positive for the new variant is a man in his 50s who had travelled to Mozambique and stopped in South Africa before returning to Reunion. The man was placed in quarantine. He has “muscle pain and fatigue,” Mavingui said, according to public television Reunion 1ere.
A day after banning all foreign visitors as an emergency precaution against the variant, Japan also confirmed its first case, in a visitor who had travelled from Namibia. A government spokesperson said the patient, a man in his 30s, tested positive upon arrival at Narita airport on Sunday and was isolated and is being treated at a hospital.
While it has urged against border closures, the WHO has stressed that while scientists are hunting evidence to better understand this variant, countries should accelerate vaccinations as quickly as possible.
WHO said there are “considerable uncertainties” about the omicron variant. But it said preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.
Despite the global worry, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms so far. But they warn that it is early and most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.
-From The Associated Press, last updated at 7:15 a.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
What’s happening around the world
As of early Tuesday morning, more than 262.2 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to the case-tracking tool maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.2 million.
We reject the travel bans imposed on Southern Africa as they are not informed by science. <a href=”https://t.co/KFGKby5gw7″>pic.twitter.com/KFGKby5gw7</a>
In Africa, South Africa’s President, Cyril Ramaphosa, is speaking out against travel bans, saying they punish his country for transparently disclosing information about a new variant.
“We are also insisting that these bans must be removed, they must be lifted,” the president said of bans on travellers from several southern African nations. “Because you do not try and contain a virus through imposing bans unscientifically and indiscriminately.”
In Europe, Germany’s highest court on Tuesday rejected complaints against curfews and other restrictions imposed by federal legislation earlier this year in areas where the coronavirus was spreading quickly — a decision that could help the country’s leaders as they struggle to tackle a sharp rise in infections.
The court found that the most controversial measures contained in the federal “emergency brake” legislation that was in place from April until the end of June were in line with the constitution. Those included a 10 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew and school closures in areas with high coronavirus infection rates.
In the Asia-Pacific region, Hong Kong expanded a ban on entry for non-residents from several countries as global health authorities raced to curb a potential outbreak of the omicron virus, while Australia is set to review containment steps after five persons tested positive.
Cambodia barred entry to travellers from 10 African countries, citing the threat from the variant. The move came just two weeks after Cambodia reopened its borders to fully vaccinated travellers.
In the Americas, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said everyone aged 18 years and older should get a booster shot either six months after their initial Pfizer or Moderna vaccine doses or two months after their Johnson & Johnson shot.
Ecuador will impose entry curbs on travellers flying from or via a number of African countries and will request vaccine certificates from those arriving from other countries due to the new omicron variant, President Guillermo Lasso said on Monday.
In the Middle East, Iran on Monday reported 4,310 new cases of COVID-19 and 82 additional deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University’s case tracker.
-From Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 7:05 a.m. ET