Omicron variant may have reached Europe earlier than expected

BRUSSELS (AP) – The economic powers of Japan and France reported their first cases of the omicron variant on Tuesday, while new findings indicate that the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe almost a week before South Africa don’t sound the alarm bells.

The RIVM health institute in the Netherlands has revealed that patient samples dating from November 19 and 23 contained the variant. It was last Wednesday, November 24, that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.

This indicates that omicron was further ahead in the Netherlands than previously believed.

Along with the cases in Japan and France, the discovery illustrates the difficulty of containing the virus in the age of air travel and economic globalization. And it has left the world once again in a seesaw between hopes of a return to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.

The pandemic has repeatedly shown that the virus “is moving rapidly due to our globalized and interconnected world,” said Dr Albert Ko, infectious disease specialist at the Yale School of Public Health. Omicron demonstrates that until the vaccination campaign reaches all countries, “we are going to be in this situation again and again”.

Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health officials suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.

But a WHO official said given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern Africa could soon see a surge in infections.

“It is possible that we will really see a doubling or tripling of the number of cases as we go along or as the week progresses,” said Dr Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, WHO regional virologist. .

After a period of low transmission in South Africa, new cases started to increase rapidly in mid-November. The country now records nearly 3,000 new confirmed infections per day.

As of Tuesday, 44 cases of omicron were reported in 11 countries in the European Union, the EU’s European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said, adding that the majority involved travel to Africa. Outside the EU and southern Africa, omicron infections have appeared in places such as Australia, Canada, Britain and Israel.

U.S. disease trackers have said omicron may already be in the United States and will likely be detected soon.

“I expect that overnight,” said Scott Becker of the Association of Public Health Laboratories. “We expect him to be here.”

While the variant was first identified by South African researchers, it’s unclear exactly where and when it originated – information that could help shed light on the speed at which it is spreading.

The Dutchman’s announcement on Tuesday could shape that timeline.

Earlier, the Netherlands said it found the variant among passengers arriving from South Africa on Friday, the same day the Netherlands and other EU members started imposing flight bans and d other restrictions in southern Africa. But the newly identified cases predate that.

NOS, the Dutch public broadcaster, said one of the two omicron samples came from a person who had been to southern Africa.

Belgium has reported a case involving a traveler who returned to the country from Egypt on November 11 but did not become ill with mild symptoms until November 22.

Japan announced a ban on all foreign visitors from Tuesday – the same day the country confirmed its first case of omicron, in a Namibian diplomat recently arrived from his country.

France also recorded its first case, on the island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. The patient was identified as a man who returned to Reunion Island from South Africa and Mozambique on November 20, before the WHO learned of the variant.

Many health officials have tried to allay fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get all parts of the world vaccinated.

Emer Cooke, head of the European Medicines Agency, said the 27-country EU is well prepared for the variant and the vaccine could be adapted for use against omicron within three or four months if needed.

England has responded to the emerging threat by again making face covering mandatory on public transport and in shops, banks and hairdressers. And a month before Christmas, the head of Britain’s Health Security Agency urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.

After COVID-19 resulted in a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said omicron “will certainly bring challenges in terms of prevention and control.”

Global markets have continued to switch on all medical news, whether disturbing or reassuring. Shares fell on Wall Street in the morning after the CEO of Moderna expressed concern about the effectiveness of omicron vaccines.

Most stocks around the world have slipped as investors assess the damage the variant could cause to the economy.

Some analysts believe that a severe economic downturn will likely be avoided because so many people have been vaccinated. But they also believe the return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been significantly delayed.


Meldrum reported from Johannesburg. PA journalists from around the world contributed.


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