UK, Germany, Italy confirm cases of Omicron coronavirus variant

Countries impose bans on travellers from southern Africa against the advice of the World Health Organization.

Travellers queue at a check-in counter at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg after several countries banned flights from South Africa [Phill Magakoe/AFP]

The United Kingdom, Germany and Italy have confirmed their first two cases of the new Omicron strain of coronavirus.

The variant has prompted several countries to impose restrictions such as travel bans on several southern African countries, against the advice of the World Health Organization, while others have imposed fresh lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The Omicron variant, which scientists say has a high number of mutations, was first detected in South Africa last week. Cases have also been reported in travellers in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong.

The mutations in Omicron, also known as B.1.1.529, could help the virus evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible, according to scientists. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.

This live blog is now closed. Here were Saturday’s updates:

Saudi Arabia to allow conditional entry ‘from all countries’ despite Omicron

Saudi Arabia has said it will allow entry to travellers “from all countries” as long as they have received one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine inside the kingdom.

The ministry said the travellers would be allowed in from next Saturday and would need to quarantine for three days.

Saudi Arabia suspended flights on Friday to and from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini.

President Biden getting updates on new variant: White House

US President Joe Biden has been briefed on the latest situation regarding the Omicron variant, the White House said.

“At the same time, senior health officials and the COVID response team have been monitoring the latest updates on Omicron and in regular touch with health officials around the world,” a White House official said in a statement.

Netherlands suspects detection of Omicron

Some of 61 COVID-19 cases detected among a group of passengers that arrived in the Netherlands from South Africa this week are likely to be the Omicron variant, health authorities have said.

“In a number of the tested persons the Omicron variant is presumed to have been found,” the Netherlands Institute for Public Health (RIVM) said in a statement.

A spokesperson for the RIVM said it was “almost certain” the cases were of the new variant but further testing is needed.

Kuwait suspends direct flights

Kuwait has suspended direct flights from nine African countries, the cabinet has said.

The countries include South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zambia and Malawi.

Omicron detected in Italy

Italy says it has detected its first case of Omicron in a traveller from Mozambique.

“The patient and the members of their family are in good health,” the national health institute said in a statement.

UK announces test and quarantine rules for travellers

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced “temporary and precautionary” measures to be reviewed in three weeks, alongside a “boost” to the booster campaign.

Mask rules will be mandatory in shops and on public transport in the UK, Omicron contacts will have to self-isolate and new arrivals will have to quarantine until they test negative for coronavirus.

Johnson warned the new variant could reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, as he announced a strengthening of England’s rules at a Downing Street press conference, after the infections were identified in Nottingham, and Brentwood in Essex.

US issues ‘Do Not Travel’ advisory for eight African countries

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and State Department have advised against travel to eight southern African countries after the White House announced new travel restrictions.

The CDC raised its travel recommendation to “Level Four: Very High” for South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, Eswatini and Botswana while the State Department issued parallel “Do Not Travel” advisories.

On Monday, the CDC had lowered its COVID-19 travel advisory for South Africa to “Level 1: Low.”

Germany confirms first two cases of Omicron

Two cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the southern German state of Bavaria, the regional health ministry has said.

The two infected people entered Germany at Munich airport on November 24, before Germany designated South Africa as a virus-variant area, and are now isolating, the ministry said.

UK in stronger position to tackle Omicron: PM Johnson

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the UK is still in a “much, much stronger position” to tackle the Omicron variant because of its vaccination programme.

“There’s nothing that we’ve announced tonight that changes for the position for hospitality and … I believe that as a result of the vaccination programme and of the booster programme that is going very, very fast now that the UK is in a much, much stronger position,” he told a news conference.

“And it’s in order to retain that strong position that we’re taking the sensible precautionary steps that we are taking today.”

Christmas will be better this year: UK’s Johnson

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he is confident that Christmas this year would be “considerably better” than the last one, when the government introduced a lockdown to try to stem the spread of COVID-19.

“I think I am going to stick with the formula that I’ve used before which is I am pretty confident or absolutely confident that this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas,” he told a news conference.

UK sets out more measures

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has unveiled new measures to try to stop the spread of Omicron, saying all arrivals would have to take a test and it was time to step up booster jabs.

“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.

He said those who had come into contact with people testing positive for a suspected case of Omicron would have to self-isolate for 10 days and that the government would tighten up the rules on wearing face coverings.

Reasonable chance of vaccine escape with Omicron: UK official

There is a reasonable chance that the newly identified Omicron variant of the coronavirus has some degree of vaccine escape, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty has said.

“There is a reasonable chance that at least there will be some degree of vaccine escape with this variant,” Whitty told a news conference, speaking alongside British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

COVID-19 positive Czech president discharged from hospital

Czech President Miloš Zeman has been discharged from the capital’s military hospital after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Zeman, 77, had already been discharged following more than a month’s treatment for an unspecified illness on Thursday, but was readmitted only hours later after testing positive for the coronavirus.

The president received monoclonal antibodies, a standard treatment for people belonging to risk groups. He is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, including a booster. Zeman has no symptoms of COVID-19, the hospital said.

German minister hopes patient transfers a ‘wake-up call’

Germany’s health minister has said he hopes that the sight of air force planes transferring patients across the country will act as a “wake-up call” to millions who are still holding out on getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

Health Minister Jens Spahn said there has been a welcome increase over the past week in the number of people getting their first shots, with 450,000 recorded. He put that down to pressure from Germany’s worsening coronavirus situation and to increasing requirements for people to provide proof of vaccination or recent recovery to take part in many activities.

But it is still not enough and “this figure of nearly 12 million unvaccinated adults is still far, far too high,” Spahn said at an online town hall event. So far, 68.4 percent of the population of 83 million people is fully vaccinated, below the 75 percent minimum threshold eyed by the government.

Blocking travel ‘gives us time to assess [Omicron] better’: Fauci

Speaking to NBC’s Today show, chief White House medical adviser Dr Anthony Fauci has said blocking travel from southern Africa is done to “give us time to assess [Omicron] better”.

“We have not detected it yet but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve noted in Israel, Belgium and other places … it almost invariably is ultimately going to go all over,” Fauci said.

“The issue of blocking travel from a given country is just to give us time to assess it better. That’s the reason for doing that. Not any reason to panic, but we want to give us some time to really fill in the blanks of what we don’t know right now.”

More patients flown out of overwhelmed German hospitals

The German state of Bavaria is operating further transfer flights across Germany for hospitals overwhelmed by the COVID-19 crisis.

Two patients were being flown from the Bavarian capital, Munich, to Hamburg in the north, and others to Cologne, Dusseldorf and Dortmund in the west. Another three were to be taken by ambulance to hospitals in the states of Saarland and Rhineland-Palatinate in the southwest.

Other flights have been operated using privately owned air ambulances. In total, some 30 intensive care patients are due to be flown out of Bavaria by Sunday evening.

England to add four more countries to ‘red list’

England will also add Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola to its travel “red list” from 4:00 GMT on Sunday, meaning British and Irish residents who arrive in the country must quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days. Non-residents will be refused entry.

The list already contained Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty will hold a news conference later on Saturday “to set out further measures”, UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.

Mauritius to suspend flights from South Africa from November 28

Mauritius will suspend all commercial passenger flights from South Africa from November 28, its foreign affairs ministry has said.

A ministry statement also said any passengers who have been physically present in South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be denied entry or transit through Mauritius.

Digital display boards show cancelled flights to London – Heathrow at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa [Sumaya Hisham/Reuters]

Suspected Omicron case found in Germany

The Omicron variant has probably arrived in Germany, a minister in the western state of Hesse has said, after mutations were found in a passenger arriving from South Africa.

“Last night several Omicron-typical mutations were found in a traveller returning from South Africa,” tweeted Kai Klose, social affairs minister in Hesse, home to Frankfurt airport, Germany’s biggest hub and one of Europe’s busiest airports.

He added a full sequencing of the variant was being carried out and the person was isolating. Anyone who has travelled from South Africa in the last few weeks should limit contact and get tested, he said.

South Korea curbs arrivals from eight southern African countries

South Korea has said it will restrict arrivals from South Africa and seven other nations.

The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency said that from November 28 the issuance of visas for those from eight nations in southern Africa would be restricted while South Korean citizens returning from the region would be quarantined.

The eight countries subject to the new restrictions are South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Two cases of coronavirus Omicron variant detected in UK

Two cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the UK, health minister Sajid Javid has said.

“Late last night I was contacted by the UK Health Security Agency. I was informed that they have detected two cases of this new variant, Omicron, in the United Kingdom. One in Chelmsford, the other in Nottingham,” he said in a broadcast clip.

“We have moved rapidly and the individuals are self-isolating while contact tracing is ongoing,” Javid said in a statement.

Barbarians-Samoa rugby cancelled in the UK

The rugby international between the Barbarians and Samoa has been called off only 90 minutes before kickoff at Twickenham, UK, due to six confirmed cases of the coronavirus among the Barbarians players and staff.

The decision was made following a recommendation by the Professional Game Testing Oversight Group, the Rugby Football Union said.

“We appreciate that this is an extremely disappointing situation for the many fans due to attend,” the RFU said, “but the safety of all members of both teams is our priority.”

‘[Omicron virus] looks potentially a lot scarier than Delta’: Immunology professor

An immunology professor has spoken about the threat posed by the Omicron variant and how it could be countered.

Talking to UK broadcaster Sky News, Professor Danny Altmann said that “if you look at the straight molecular biology limitations, it looks potentially quite a lot scarier even than Delta” but that there were no reports yet from South Africa that cases were more severe.

Altmann also spoke about how “foolhardy” it was that the African continent had not received similar amounts of vaccine compared with Europe or North America, thus increasing the risk of new variants spreading quickly.

Hungary to tighten controls on air travel

Hungary will impose restrictions on travellers from Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, the government has said.

Hungary said it was joining a European Union move to curb air travel from southern Africa and that its measures would be published in a government decree later in the day.

Hello, this is Mersiha Gadzo taking over the live blog from my colleague Farah Najjar. 

Women’s Cricket World Cup qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe cancelled

The women’s cricket World Cup qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe has been abandoned after the discovery of the Omicron coronavirus variant in South Africa, the sport’s governing body said.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) took the decision after Saturday’s game between the West Indies and Sri Lanka was called off when a member of the Sri Lankan support staff tested positive for COVID-19.

“We are incredibly disappointed to have to cancel the remainder of this event,” Chris Tetley, the ICC’s head of events, said in a statement.

“But with travel restrictions from a number of African countries being imposed at such short notice, there was a serious risk that teams would be unable to return home.

“We have explored a number of options to allow us to complete the event but it isn’t feasible and we will fly the teams out of Zimbabwe as soon as possible.”

South Africa complains of ‘punishment’ for detecting Omicron variant

South Africa has said that it is being “punished” for detecting the new Omicron coronavirus variant.

South Africa’s foreign ministry said in a statement that 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.

Welsh, Irish Rugby clubs in South Africa face quarantine

Cardiff, Scarlets and Munster face quarantine and fixture disruption as they remained stuck in South Africa, hoping to leave this weekend despite travel bans.

The two Welsh clubs are unlikely to beat the Sunday deadline, set by the UK government on travellers from South Africa, to avoid hotel quarantine.

They had tried to charter a flight home on Friday but were refused permission by the United Kingdom’s Civil Aviation Authority, Cardiff and Scarlets said.

Cardiff said their players remained in good spirits at their Cape Town base while efforts to repatriate them were continuing. Scarlets said their players had returned negative tests but were following strict COVID-19 protocols.

Munster’s players will have to isolate at home for 10 days once they return to Ireland, where quarantine regulations are less restrictive, but all three teams face a knock-on effect with their fixtures.

Qatar Airways bans travellers from three countries

Qatar Airways said it has banned entry to travellers from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique due to the spread of the new COVID-19 variant.

UK scientist backs vaccines against Omicron

The British scientist who led the research underpinning AstraZeneca’s coronavirus jab said a new vaccine could be developed against the emerging Omicron variant “very rapidly” if needed.

Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, also said existing vaccines should work against the new strain, but that would only become apparent after more research in the coming weeks.

“It’s extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year [with the Delta variant] is going to happen,” he told BBC radio.

But if required, “The processes of how one goes about developing a new vaccine are increasingly well-oiled, so if it’s needed that is something that could be moved very rapidly.”

Existing vaccines should work against the new strain, but more research is needed, scientists say [File: Ben Curtis/AP Photo]

Czechs report suspected case of Omicron variant

The Czech Republic is examining a suspected case of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus detected in a person who spent time in Namibia, the National Institute of Public Health said.

“A lab is checking a possible find of a positive specimen of the Omicron variant. We are awaiting confirmation or refutation of the case,” spokeswoman Stepanka Cechova said in an emailed statement.

Suspected Omicron case found in Germany, regional minister says

A minister in the German state of Hesse said that the Omicron COVID-19 variant had very probably arrived in Germany.

“Last night several Omicron-typical mutations were found in a traveller returning from South Africa,” tweeted Kai Klose, the social affairs minister in the western German state that is home to Frankfurt airport.

He added that a full sequencing of the variant was being carried out.

Outcry in South Africa over ‘unnecessary’ travel bans

Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from Johannesburg, said South Africa’s leaders are trying to reverse the travel bans, which many scientists regard as being unnecessary.

“That outcry comes specifically from scientists and the government in South Africa who have certainly been frustrated in the last 24-48 hours, saying that simply because South Africa has done its work and been transparent [in presenting its findings], now South Africa is being punished by being put on the red list. [They say] it is unjustified and it has created unnecessary panic,” she said.

“There is concern about the impact that these bans will have on South Africa – especially given the difficulties the economy has gone through throughout this pandemic and ahead of the holiday season when travellers come from Europe and the United Kingdom and bring in millions of dollars worth of revenue.”

India’s Modi orders review of reopening on Omicron COVID-19 concerns

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told officials to review plans to ease travel restrictions as concerns rise over the new variant.

The world’s second-worst affected country by the pandemic had only on Friday decided to resume international passenger flights from countries deemed “at risk” of the coronavirus, while ordering tightened border screening.

But after the WHO declared the new variant to be “of concern”, Modi “highlighted the need for monitoring all international arrivals, their testing as per guidelines, with a specific focus on countries identified ‘at risk’,” the government said in a statement after he met with officials to review the COVID-19 and vaccination situation.

Modi said people must be more cautious and take proper precautions, such as wearing masks and social distancing. He “spoke about the need to be proactive in light of the new variant,” the statement said.

Variants may be a result of vaccine inequity: Analyst

Oksana Pyzik, a global health adviser and a lecturer at teaching fellow at University College London’s School of Pharmacy, told Al Jazeera that vaccine inequality will likely lead to more coronavirus variants as the pandemic is prolonged and that a more coordinated international approach towards vaccine distribution is needed.

“The World Health Organization has been warning repeatedly for months on end … that if vaccine inequity continues, if we continue to have high-income countries hoarding vaccines such that entire continents are left with very limited access to vaccines, this will inevitably lead to a [more powerful] virus, a potentially vaccine-resistant virus,” she said.

Pyzik said that less than 3.5 percent of people across the continent of Africa have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

“So only focusing on high-income regions has been a short term view of the issue, and we have also taken for granted that Delta is the worst variant that we could come across and now we have evidence that points otherwise – of course it is early days, but what scientists have come across is deeply worrying.”

Oil prices crash as fears loom over global recovery

Cornerlia Meyer, an economist and oil analyst, said oil prices fell more than 10 percent.

“That was probably an overreaction, it’s always overshoot and undershoot,” Meyer told Al Jazeera.

“But it shows real awareness amongst traders … in terms of what does this mean … what will that mean for air travel,” she said.

“Should this variant spread, and if transatlantic routes close down again, that would be bad.”

To read more about the crash, click here.

‘Monitoring systems’ in place to detect new variants: WHO COVID-19 lead

Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, said despite people’s concern over the Omicron variant, the good thing is that “we have monitoring systems around the world to detect these variants very quickly”.

“This variant was detected a few weeks ago, and already, scientists are sharing research with us … so that we can take action,” she told Al Jazeera.

UK Labour Party calls for quicker COVID-19 booster jabs

Britain should cut the gap between the second dose of a COVID-19 vaccination and the booster jab from six to five months, Britain’s main opposition Labour Party said.

“This new variant is a wake-up call,” said Labour’s junior health spokesman Alex Norris. “The pandemic is not over. We need to urgently bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay.”

Japan tightening border controls on three more African countries

Japan will tighten border controls for the southern African nations of Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia, requiring a 10-day quarantine for any entrants, the Foreign Ministry said.

The new rules will take effect from midnight (15:00 GMT on Saturday) and come a day after Japan tightened border controls for those arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho.

Travellers from South Africa in Netherlands positive for COVID-19

Dutch health authorities said that 61 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for COVID-19, and they were conducting further testing early Saturday to see if any of the infections are with the Omicron variant.

“Travelers with a positive test result will be placed in isolation at a hotel at or near Schiphol,” health authorities said in a statement.

“Of the positive test results, we are researching as quickly as possible whether they are the new variant of concern, now named ‘Omicron’.”

The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday.

Sri Lanka bans travellers from six African nations

Sri Lanka said it was barring travellers from six Southern African countries on Saturday over concerns about the new Omicron variant of COVID-19.

From Monday, travellers will not be allowed into the country from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho and Eswatini, Colombo said in a statement.

Travellers who arrived from these six countries over the past two days will have to undergo mandatory 14 days quarantine.

Thailand bans entry from eight African countries

Thailand said it would ban the entry of people travelling from eight African countries it designated as high-risk for the new Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Starting in December, travel from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, will be prohibited, senior health official Opas Karnkawinpong told a news conference.

Thailand will not allow travellers from these countries to register to travel to Thailand starting on Saturday, he said.

“We have notified airlines and these countries,” Opas said adding that travellers from other African countries will not be allowed to use the country’s quarantine-free travel scheme for vaccinated travellers.

South African scientists brace for wave propelled by Omicron

South Africa’s numbers are still relatively low, with 2,828 new confirmed cases recorded on Friday, but Omicron’s speed in infecting young South Africans has alarmed health professionals.

“We’re seeing a marked change in the demographic profile of patients with COVID-19,” Dr Rudo Mathivha, the head of the intensive care unit at Soweto’s Baragwanath Hospital, told an online press briefing.

“Young people, in their 20s to just over their late 30s, are coming in with moderate to severe disease, some needing intensive care. About 65 percent are not vaccinated and most of the rest are only half-vaccinated,” said Mathivha.

She said urgent preparations are needed to enable public hospitals to cope with a potentially large influx of patients needing intensive care.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies