World on Alert as U.K. Reports Cases of Omicron COVID-19 Variant

LONDON — Britain became the latest country Saturday to report cases of the new potentially more contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus as governments around the world sought to shore up their defenses by slapping restrictions on travel from nations in southern Africa.

Growing concerns are rising that the new, newly discovered variant may be even more resistant than the vaccines offer. There is also growing concern that the lockdown restrictions and pandemic will continue for much longer than expected.

Sajid Javid (UK Health Secretary) confirmed the positive results for two individuals with the Omicron variant. They were found in Chelmsford, southeastern England and Nottingham. The cases are related to travel from south Africa, he said.
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Javid stated that the confirmed cases were self-isolating with their families while targeted testing and contact traceability take place. He also added four more countries — Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia — onto the country’s travel red list from Sunday. Six others — Botswana, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe — were added Friday. This means that anyone who arrives from these destinations must be quarantined.

“This is a real reminder that this pandemic is far from over,” he said. “If we need to take further action, we will.”

Boris Johnson and his top advisers will host a briefing for the media on Saturday.

Many countries have slapped restrictions on various southern African countries over the past couple of days including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, in response to warnings over the transmissability of the new variant — against the advice of the World Health Organization. Although they were optimistic that their vaccines would be able to handle the new variant, it will take time.

Even though flights are banned, concerns grow that the variant could have already been widespread seeded throughout the world. There have also been cases reported by travelers from Israel, Hong Kong, and Belgium. Germany said that it also suspected there was a positive case. The Dutch authorities are currently testing to see if the omicron variant is present in any of the 61 passengers who traveled from South Africa on COVID-19 flights.

After the Dutch government had banned flights from South African countries, the planes arrived from Johannesburg and Cape Town in the Netherlands. 539 people who were negative for the disease could return home, or go on to another country. The government has established that those living in the Netherlands are not allowed to return home unless they self-isolate at least for five days.

Meanwhile, a German official said that there’s a “very high probability” that the omicron variant has already arrived in the country.

Kai Klose, the health minister for Hesse state, which includes Frankfurt, said in a tweet that “several mutations typical of omicron” were found Friday night in a traveler returning from South Africa, who was isolated at home. The sequencing of the test was not yet complete.

Global health authorities have named this new variant “omicron”, deeming it to be a concern due to its large number of mutations, early evidence that it is more susceptible than others and the fact it has a greater degree of infection. This means that people who had COVID-19 may be at risk of getting it again. It may take several weeks before we know whether the current vaccines against COVID-19 are more effective.

There is so much uncertainty surrounding the Omicron variant, and it’s unlikely that scientists will finish their research for several weeks. Countries around the globe have taken a safety-first approach in light of previous pandemic outbreaks, which were partly caused by poor border policies.

Nearly two decades have passed since the pandemic began, and countries around the world are still on high alert.

The variant’s swift spread among young people in South Africa has alarmed health professionals even though there was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease.

Pfizer is one of several pharmaceutical companies, along with Moderna, Novavax, AstraZeneca and Novavax, that said it has plans to modify its vaccines for the possible emergence of Omicron. Pfizer, along with BioNTech, said they plan to modify their vaccines in about 100 days.

Andrew Pollard (director of the Oxford Vaccine Group) expressed caution that vaccines already in use could prevent serious diseases from the omicron-related variant.

He stated that most of these mutations occur in regions similar to those found in other variants.

“That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we’ve moved through alpha, beta, gamma and delta,” he told BBC radio. “At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed.”

He added that it is “extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.”

Some experts said the variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.

Only 6% of Africans have received COVID-19 vaccines, while millions of vulnerable people and health professionals have not yet been given a dose. These conditions could increase the spread of the virus and give it more chances to become a deadly variant.

“One of the key factors to emergence of variants may well be low vaccination rates in parts of the world, and the WHO warning that none of us is safe until all of us are safe and should be heeded,” said Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.


This report was contributed by Geir Moulson, Berlin and Mike Corder, The Hague (Netherlands).


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