Countries race to contain Omicron Covid variant, as new cases appear in Europe

The US, Canada and Australia joined a growing list of countries imposing travel restrictions from southern Africa on Saturday after the discovery of the new Omicron coronavirus variant sparked global concern. South Africa has protested the measures, while the variant continues to spread, with Britain, Germany and Italy confirming its first cases, and other countries, such as the Netherlands, also announcing suspected cases.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the new variant may spread more quickly than other variants of Covid-19 and preliminary evidence suggested there is an increased risk of reinfection.

Epidemiologists warned travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating globally. The new mutations were first discovered in South Africa and have since been detected in several other countries.

Read FRANCE 24’s coverage of the day’s events.

9.35pm Paris time

Hospital confirms first Czech case of Omicron strain

A regional hospital in the northern Czech city of Liberec confirmed the new Omicron strain of Covid-19 in a female patient, its spokesman Vaclav Ricar told Czech Television Saturday.

“My colleagues from the department of genetics and molecular diagnostics confirmed the strain with 90-percent probability after a sequence analysis,” said Ricar.

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said earlier Saturday that the woman had been in Namibia and flew back to the Czech Republic via South Africa and Dubai.

“Given where the patient came from and all the circumstances, we can confirm the strain has been confirmed,” added Ricar.

8.05pm Paris time

Dutch authorities say several ‘presumed’ Omicron cases detected among passengers from S. Africa

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, Dutch health authorities said on Saturday.

“In a number of the tested persons the Omicron variant is presumed to have been found,” the Netherlands Institute for 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.

7.24pm Paris time

Italy announces first case of Omicron Covid-19 variant

Italy on Saturday said it had detected its first case of the new Omicron strain of Covid-19 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.

6.53pm Paris time

Germany confirms two Omicron Covid-19 variant cases in southern state of Bavaria

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

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

6.45pm Paris time

‘Reasonable chance’ of vaccine escape with Omicron variant, UK Chief Medical officer says

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 said on Saturday.

“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.

6.30pm Paris time

UK to toughen Covid-19 entry rules for all arrivals

After two cases of the new Omicron variant were confirmed in the United Kingdom, the country will require all arriving passengers to isolate until they can show a negative PCR test against Covid-19 and is restoring a mandate to wear face masks in shops and public transport, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday.

“We now need to go further and implement a new testing regime,” he told a hastily arranged news conference, hours after the government confirmed the first two cases of the new Omicron variant in Britain.

Currently, all Britons and foreigners entering the UK are required to take a PCR test on day two after their arrival. The new rules add the requirement for isolation pending a negative result, significantly toughening the regime, in a bid to curb the spread of the new strain. 

Johnson added that the mandate for masks, controversially ditched by the government earlier this year, would return, without specifying when the new measures will come into force.

3:35pm Paris time

UK becomes latest European country to detect cases of Omicron variant

Two linked cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in Britain connected to travel to southern Africa, Health Minister Sajid Javid said on Saturday.

“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. The two individuals and all members of their households are being re-tested and told to self-isolate while further testing and contact tracing is done, the health ministry said.

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

Authorities in Germany and the Czech Republic also said they had suspected cases.

1:22 pm Paris time

South Africa says ‘excellent science should be applauded, not punished’

South Africa complained Saturday that it was being “punished” for detecting the new Covid-19 variant Omicron early, after many countries around the world began banning flights from a number of countries in southern Africa.

The flight ban “is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” the South African foreign affairs ministry said in a statement. “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.

With more than 2.95 million cases and 89,783 deaths, South Africa is the worst-hit country in Africa by the pandemic. It has nevertheless some of the world’s top epidemiologists and scientists, who have managed to detect emerging coronavirus variants and their mutations early on in their life cycle.

11:22 Paris time

Suspected Omicron case being investigated in Germany

The Omicron variant had probably arrived in Germany, said a minister of the German state of Hesse, home to the busy Frankfurt airport.

“Last night several Omicron-typical mutations were found in a traveller returning from South Africa,” tweeted Kai Klose, social affairs minister in Hesse.

A full sequencing of the variant was being carried out, said Klose.

The announcement came a day after Belgium said it had detected the first announced case of the new variant in Europe, in an unvaccinated person returning from abroad.

8:25 Paris time

Further testing for Covid-19 positive passengers from South Africa in Amsterdam

Dutch health authorities on Saturday said 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 to see if any of the infections are with the recently discovered Omicron coronavirus variant.

Around 600 passengers arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on the two KLM flights on Friday and then faced hours of delays and testing due to concerns over the new virus variant.

The Dutch health ministry said early Saturday 61 tests had come back positive.

“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. Health Minister Hugo de Jonge determined that passengers already en route to the Netherlands would have to undergo testing and quarantine upon arrival.

Passengers on the two KLM flights, from Cape Town and Johannesburg, said they were kept waiting on the tarmac for hours.

“Vigorous applause because there is a BUS that has come to take us … somewhere,” tweeted New York Times journalist Stephanie Nolen, a passenger on the flight from Johannesburg who later said she had tested negative.

A spokesperson for the health authorities in Kennemerland, the Dutch region that oversees Schiphol, said the positive cases were being analysed by an academic medical hospital to determine whether they are the new strain.

8:20 Paris time

Thailand bans entry from high-risk countries 

Thailand announces an entry ban on people travelling from eight African countries it has designated as high-risk for the new Omicron variant.

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.

8:03 Paris time

Oman bans travellers from seven southern African states 

Oman has suspended entry to travellers from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini starting from November 28 due to the spread of the new Omicron variant, the country’s state news agency said in a tweet on Saturday.

4:31 Paris time

Australia starts 14-day quarantine for citizens travelling from southern Africa

Australia imposed new restrictions on Saturday on people who have been to nine southern African countries. They include South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique.

Effective immediately, the government will ban non-citizens who have been in those countries from entering and will require supervised 14-day quarantines for Australian citizens and their dependents returning from the countries, said Health Minister Greg Hunt.

These restrictions also apply to people such as international students and skilled migrants arriving from countries with which Australia has travel bubbles, who have been in any of the nine countries within the past 14 days.

“If the medical evidence shows that further actions are required, we will not hesitate to take them. And that may involve strengthening or expanding the restrictions,” he said.

Anyone who has already arrived in Australia and who has been in any of those countries within the past 14 days must immediately isolate and be tested.

The Australian government will also suspend all flights from the nine southern African countries for two weeks.

Twenty travellers from South Africa are in quarantine in the Northern Territory’s Howard Springs facility, 19 of whom have returned negative coronavirus tests. It is not yet known if the one positive test result is the Omicron variant, Hunt said.

4:18 Paris time

CDC says no cases of Omicron identified in US so far

No cases of the new Omicron variant have been identified in the US to date, said the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We expect Omicron to be identified quickly, if it emerges in the US,” CDC said in a statement.

00:45 Paris time

US imposes travel ban from eight African countries

The US will bar entry to most travelers from eight southern African countries starting on Monday.

The restrictions apply to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. Most non-US citizens who have been in those countries within the prior 14 days will not be allowed into the US. 

“As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries,” said President Joe Biden said in a statement.

The president told reporters while on a walk in Nantucket that his medical team recommended the ban begin on Monday instead of immediately.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)