THE NETHERLANDS, SOUTH AFRICA: Several European nations on Saturday announced their first cases of a highly infectious new ‘Omicron’ coronavirus strain which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern”. Governments worldwide began pulling down the shutters to contain the new Omicron variant.
Britain, Germany and Italy confirmed their first cases of the new COVID-19 strain, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for COVID-19.
Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, particularly whether it can evade existing vaccines. It has already proved to be more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant.
Travellers thronged Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. The virus has already slipped through the net, with cases discovered in Europe, Hong Kong and Israel and in southern Africa. Britain on Saturday announced tougher entry rules for all arriving passengers and the return of a mask mandate, after confirming its first two cases of the new Omicron strain of COVID-19. A hospital in the Czech Republic confirmed a case of the Omicron variant in a female patient who had travelled from Namibia.
Germany confirmed its first two cases in travellers who arrived at Munich airport from South Africa. Italy announced its first case of the new COVID strain in a traveller from Mozambique. And Dutch officials said the Omicron variant was “probably” among 61 passengers who had arrived on two flights from South Africa a day before and tested positive for COVID-19.
In the US, a White House official said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the Omicron situation and that health officials were monitoring events. Belgium announced its first case in an unvaccinated person returning from abroad on Friday. South Africa called the travel curbs “draconian” and on Saturday said the flight bans were “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,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The main countries targeted by the shutdown include South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini (Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken “praised South Africa’s scientists for the quick identification of the Omicron variant and South Africa’s government for its transparency in sharing this information, which should serve as a model for the world”, a State Department statement said.
Biden said richer countries should donate more COVID-19 vaccines and give up intellectual property protections to manufacture more doses worldwide.
EU officials agreed in an emergency meeting to urge all 27 nations in the bloc to restrict travel from southern Africa. Many members had already done so.
The World Trade Organization called off a ministerial conference, its biggest gathering in four years, at the last minute Friday due to the new variant. Meanwhile, The new Omicron variant of the coronavirus results in mild disease, without prominent syndromes, Angelique Coetzee, the chairwoman of the South African Medical Association, told Sputnik on Saturday.
The World Health Organization (WHO) identified on Friday the new South African strain as one of concern, as it is reported to carry a high number of mutations — 32 — which possibly makes it more transmissible and dangerous. The WHO has dubbed it Omicron, the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.
“It presents mild disease with symptoms being sore muscles and tiredness for a day or two not feeling well. So far, we have detected that those infected do not suffer loss of taste or smell. They might have a slight cough. There are no prominent symptoms. Of those infected some are currently being treated at home,” Ms Coetzee said.
– THE INDIAN EXPRESS