Fears are growing that a new strain of highly infectious coronavirus is making its way into Europe, as the world closes the shutters to contain the new Omicron variant.
New suspected cases have emerged in Germany and the Czech Republic, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 South African passengers who tested positive for Covid-19.
South Africa has complained of being “punished” with air travel bans for first detecting the strain, which the World Health Organization has called a “worrying variant.”
Australia and Thailand have joined the United States, Brazil, Canada and a host of other countries around the world restricting travel from the region, fearing a major setback in global efforts against the pandemic.
Scientists are rushing to determine the threat posed by the highly mutated strain, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant, and whether it can escape existing vaccines.
Concerned travelers thronged Johannesburg International Airport, desperate to sneak up on the latest flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many had cut back on their vacations and rushed to South African safaris and wineries.
“It’s ridiculous, we’ll always have new variants,” British tourist David Good said, passports in hand.
“South Africa has found it but it’s probably all over the world already.”
Two cases of new variant of Covid-19 detected in the United Kingdom
How concerned should the world be about the Omicron variant?
The virus has already slipped through the net with cases confirmed in the UK, as well as parts of Europe, Hong Kong and Israel.
Germany has become the second European country to find a suspected case of the new strain, after Belgium yesterday.
“The Omicron variant has most likely already arrived in Germany,” tweeted Kai Klose, Minister of Social Affairs of the Western State of Hesse.
The neighboring Czech Republic was carrying out further tests on a woman who had traveled from Namibia and was suspected of having the new variant, Prime Minister Andrej Babis said.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, found that around one in 10 – 61 in 600 – who arrived at Schiphol airport from South Africa yesterday was positive for Covid-19. The rest tested negative.
The infected, who flew on two KLM flights that took off before the Dutch government announced a ban on travelers from the region, were being kept in quarantine at a hotel near the airport.
“The positive test results will be examined as soon as possible to determine whether this is the worrying new variant,” the Dutch health authority said in a statement.
The Netherlands on Friday became the latest in a series of European countries to tighten their Covid restrictions.
WHO said it could take several weeks to figure out the variant, initially known as B.1.1.529, and warned against imposing travel restrictions when scientific evidence was still scarce .
South Africa called the travel restrictions “draconian” and said on Saturday the flight bans were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and ability to detect new variants faster” .
“Scientific excellence should be applauded and not punished,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The main countries targeted by the closure are South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini (Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
US President Joe Biden meanwhile said richer countries should donate more Covid-19 vaccines and drop intellectual property protections to manufacture more doses around the world to stem the spread of the virus. . “
The news about this new variant should explain more clearly than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations, ”he said.
But with still fresh memories of how global air travel helped spread Covid after it emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, countries cracked down on the new variant.
Australia has become the latest to act, banning all flights from nine countries in southern Africa.
Thailand has restricted flights from eight countries, as have the United States, Brazil, Canada and Saudi Arabia.
EU officials agreed at an emergency meeting to urge the 27 countries in the bloc to restrict travel from southern Africa, as many members have already done so.
The World Trade Organization on Friday canceled its ministerial conference, its largest gathering in four years, on Friday because of the new variant.
Vaccine makers have hoped to be able to modify current vaccines to target the Omicron variant.
Germany’s BioNTech and US drugmaker Pfizer have said they expect data “in two weeks at the latest” to show whether their jab can be adjusted.
Moderna has said he will develop a booster specific to the new variant.