The new potentially more contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in more European countries on Saturday, just days after being identified in South Africa, leaving governments around the world scrambling to stop the spread.

The United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy have become the latest countries to detect cases of the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus, 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.


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.

Omicron Variant Spreads To More Countries As World On Alert
Passengers wait to board flights, amidst the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 variant, at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 27, 2021. REUTERS/ Sumaya Hisham

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 traveled 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 traveled 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 the worst outcome scenario – which, if we go back to March 2020, many countries did not.”

Omicron Variant Spreads To More Countries As World On Alert
Passengers wait to board flights, amidst the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 variant, at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, November 27, 2021. REUTERS/ Sumaya Hisham

Travel curbs

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.

Classification of Omicron (B.1.1.529): SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern

Statement by the World Health Organization (WHO)

The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) is an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assesses if specific mutations and combinations of mutations alter the behavior of the virus. The TAG-VE was convened on 26 November 2021 to assess the SARS-CoV-2 variant: B.1.1.529.

The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on 24 November 2021. The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021.

This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant. Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as a marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation. Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.

There are a number of studies underway and the TAG-VE will continue to evaluate this variant. WHO will communicate new findings with the Member States and to the public as needed.

Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a VOC and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron.

As such, countries are asked to do the following:

  • enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants.
  • submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID.
  • report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infection to WHO through the IHR mechanism.
  • where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the VOC on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, the effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralization, or other relevant characteristics.

Individuals are reminded to take measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19, including proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving the ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated.

For reference, WHO has working definitions for SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Interest (VOI) and Variant of Concern (VOC).

A SARS-CoV-2 VOI is a SARS-CoV-2 variant:

  • with genetic changes that are predicted or known to affect virus characteristics such as transmissibility, disease severity, immune escape, diagnostic or therapeutic escape; AND
  • that has been identified as causing significant community transmission or multiple COVID-19 clusters, in multiple countries with increasing relative prevalence alongside the increasing number of cases over time, or other apparent epidemiological impacts to suggest an emerging risk to global public health.

A SARS-CoV-2 VOC is a SARS-CoV-2 variant that meets the definition of a VOI (see above) and, through a comparative assessment, has been demonstrated to be associated with one or more of the following changes at a degree of global public health significance:

  • increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology; OR
  • increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation; OR
  • decrease in the effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, therapeutics

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