The United Kingdom, Germany and Italy have become the latest countries to detect cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, while more nations imposed restrictions on travel from countries in southern Africa despite their protestations and against the advice of the World Health Organization (WHO).
Omicron, designated a “variant of concern” by the United Nations’ health agency, is potentially more contagious than previous variants, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared with other strains.
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The two Omicron cases found in the UK on Saturday were connected to travel to southern Africa, British Health Minister Sajid Javid said.
Speaking later, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined measures that included stricter testing rules for people arriving in the country but which stopped short of curbs on social activity other than requiring mask-wearing in some settings.
“We will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result,” Johnson told a news conference.
Anyone who had come into contact with people testing positive for a suspected case of Omicron would have to self-isolate for 10 days and the government would tighten the rules on wearing face coverings, Johnson said, adding that the steps would be reviewed in three weeks.
England’s chief medical officer, Chris Witty, said at the same news conference that there was still much uncertainty about Omicron, but “there is a reasonable chance that at least there will be some degree of vaccine escape with this variant”.
The health ministry in the German state of Bavaria also announced two confirmed cases of the variant. The two people entered Germany through Munich airport on November 24, before Germany designated South Africa as a virus-variant area, and were now isolating, the ministry said, indicating without stating explicitly that the people had travelled from South Africa.
In Italy, the National Health Institute said a case of the new variant had been detected in Milan in a person coming from Mozambique.
Czech health authorities also said they were examining a suspected case of the variant in a person who spent time in Namibia, while Denmark’s health ministry said it has likely found Omicron in two people who arrived from South Africa.
Dutch health authorities, meanwhile, said Omicron was “almost certainly” among some of the 61 passengers who tested positive after arriving on two flights from South Africa.
A spokesperson for KLM, the Dutch arm of Air France, said the passengers on the flight had either tested negative or shown proof of vaccination before getting on planes in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
“It goes too far to say we are surprised” by the high number of cases, a KLM spokesperson said. “But we don’t have an explanation.”
Dutch health authorities were seeking to contact some 5,000 other passengers who have travelled from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia or Zimbabwe since Monday to urge them to take a COVID-19 test as soon as possible.
Oksana Pyzik, of the University College London School of Pharmacy, told Al Jazeera it will take weeks of analysis for scientists to determine the severity of symptoms caused by Omicron.
“This variant was discovered very early, which is great, but the tradeoff on that is that it will take some time for further understanding,” Pyzik said.
“If anything we’ve learned throughout the pandemic so far is that acting early is key, so if there has been a false alarm on this, it gave countries enough time to prepare for a worst outcome scenario – which, if we go back to March 2020, many countries did not.”
The variant, which has several mutations that may carry the risk of reinfection, was first discovered by scientists in South Africa and has also since been detected in different parts of the world, including in Belgium, Botswana, the Czech Republic, Israel, Italy and Hong Kong.
The WHO has cautioned that it could take several weeks to find out whether the newly discovered mutations make the virus more virulent or transmissible.
And, although experts say travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating globally, many countries around the world – including Brazil, Canada, European Union nations, and the United States – announced travel bans or restrictions on southern Africa on Friday.
“Pandemics do not respect borders,” Donna Patterson, professor and chair of the department of history, political science and philosophy at Delaware State University, told Al Jazeera.
“Often by the time a new variant has been identified, it has already had time to migrate,” Patterson added, noting that “it is likely that more countries will follow” in detecting Omicron.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and State Department added on Saturday to Washington’s previously announced travel restrictions, advising against travel to eight southern African countries.
Also on Saturday, Australia said it would ban non-citizens who have been in nine southern African countries from entering and will require supervised 14-day quarantines for Australian citizens returning from there.
The UK said it was expanding its “red list” to put travel curbs on more southern African countries, while Hungary, Kuwait, Oman, South Korea, Sri Lanka, and Thailand announced travel restrictions on southern African nations.
In South Africa, there were worries the travel curbs would hurt tourism and other sectors of its pandemic-hit economy, drawing criticism by officials and scientists who said the measures were unjustified.
“The government says South Africa has been at the forefront of testing and tracking the changes in COVID-19, and scientists have stressed it’s important to see what the data on the new variant will show before making any decisions,” said Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from Johannesburg. “And that sentiment has trickled down to the general public, where many believe South Africa is being treated unfairly.”
In a statement on Saturday, South Africa’s foreign ministry said moves by many countries to ban flights from southern Africa following the discovery of the variant “is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker”.
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said.
The ministry pointed out that new variants had been discovered in other parts of the world.
“Each of those cases have had no recent links with Southern Africa, but the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in Southern Africa,” it said.
Omicron has emerged at a time when many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in COVID-19 infections, and some have reintroduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.
The discovery of the variant also sparked a sell-off on financial markets on Friday as investors worried that Omicron could stall a global recovery from the nearly two-year pandemic.