THE HAGUE, Netherlands – With every passing hour, new restrictions were placed on travel from southern African countries as the world rushed on Saturday to contain a new variant of the coronavirus that has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines.
A multitude of countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, have joined others, including the European Union and the United Kingdom, to impose restrictions on southern African countries in response to warnings about the transmissibility of the new variant. against the advice of the World Health Organization.
Despite the stopping of flights, there was growing evidence that the variant was already spreading. Cases have been reported in travelers to Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, and Germany also has a probable case. Dutch authorities are researching the new variant after 61 passengers on two flights from South Africa tested positive for COVID-19.
The world health body has named the new omicron variant, calling it a variant of concern because of its high number of mutations and some early evidence that it carries a higher degree of infection than other variants. This means that people who have contracted COVID-19 and have recovered could be prone to catch it again. It could take weeks to find out if current vaccines are less effective against her.
With so many uncertainties about the omicron variant and scientists unlikely to flesh out their findings for a few weeks, countries around the world have taken a safety-focused approach, knowing that previous outbreaks of the pandemic were in part fueled. by the laxity of borders. Strategies.
“It seems to be spreading quickly,” US President Joe Biden said of the new variant on Friday, just a day after celebrating the resumption of Thanksgiving gatherings for millions of American families and a feeling that normal life was returning to life. less for the vaccinated. Announcing new travel restrictions, he told reporters: “I have decided that we are going to be careful.”
Almost two years after the start of the pandemic that killed more than 5 million people around the world, countries are on high alert.
Dutch authorities isolated 61 people who tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday. They are conducting further investigations to see if any of the travelers have the omicron variant.
The planes arrived in the Netherlands from Johannesburg and Cape Town shortly after the Dutch government banned flights from southern African countries.
The 539 travelers who tested negative have been allowed to return home or continue their journey to other countries. Under government regulations, those who live in the Netherlands and are allowed to return home must self-isolate for at least five days.
A German official also said on Saturday that there was a “very high probability” that the omicron variant has already arrived in the country.
Kai Klose, the Hessian state health minister, who includes Frankfurt, said in a tweet that “several typical omicron mutations” were found on Friday evening in a returning traveler from South Africa, who was isolated at his home. The sequencing of the test was not yet complete.
The rapid spread of the variant among young people in South Africa alarmed healthcare professionals even though there was no immediate indication whether the variant is causing more serious illness. In just two weeks, omicron transformed a period of low transmission in the country into a period of rapid growth.
A number of pharmaceutical companies, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, have said they have plans in place to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of omicron.
Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group that developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective in preventing serious illnesses caused by the omicron variant.
He said most of the mutations appear to be in regions similar to other variants.
“This tells you that despite these mutations existing in other variants, vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we move through alpha, beta, gamma and delta,” he said. 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 severe disease, but we really have to wait several weeks for that to be confirmed.”
He added that it is “extremely unlikely that a restart of a pandemic in a vaccinated population as we saw last year will occur.”
Some experts have said that the emergence of the variant illustrates how hoarding of vaccine-rich countries threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Less than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immune to COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. These conditions can accelerate the spread of the virus, providing more possibilities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.
Pylas contributed from London. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.