Omicron: world on high alert over new variant of coronavirus

The new, potentially more transmissible mutation was first discovered in South Africa and has since been detected in the UK, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic and Hong Kong.

Israel is banning all foreigners from entering the country in response to Omicron’s fears, authorities said on Saturday. The ban, pending government approval, is expected to last two weeks. Israelis returning from a country on the Red List, which includes countries in southern Africa, will be required to self-isolate for seven days at a designated hotel.

There are seven suspected cases of the variant in Israel, in addition to a confirmed case found in a person returning from Malawi, its health ministry said.

Australia is urgently testing travelers who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa after testing positive for Covid-19, the NSW Department of Health said in a statement on Sunday.

“Urgent genomic sequencing is underway to determine whether they have been infected with the new variant of Omicron B.1.1.529 of concern,” the statement said. Other passengers on the flight can be considered close contact and are urged to get tested immediately, he added.

Australia has banned the entry of foreigners who have visited nine southern African countries in the past 14 days, including South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, South Korea has imposed restrictions on travelers from eight southern African countries, its disease control and prevention agency said on Saturday.

Foreign nationals from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique are banned from entering South Korea, the agency said. The issuance of visas to nationals of these countries has been suspended until further notice, he added.

Korean nationals entering from these countries must self-quarantine at a government-designated facility for 10 days.

What is happening in Europe?

Europe is also frantically imposing travel bans and scrambling to increase its coronavirus sequencing capabilities after several countries on the continent reported suspected cases of Omicron.

A suspected case of the variant was discovered in Innsbruck, western Austria, after a traveler recently arrived from South Africa tested positive for Covid-19, the government said on Saturday. State of Tyrol.

Samples of the case have been sent to Vienna, the capital, and the results are expected in the coming days, authorities said.

Meanwhile, scientists at the Liberec Regional Hospital in the Czech Republic told CNN on Saturday that a case of the Omicron variant had been detected in a traveler who arrived from Namibia. Eight other people who traveled with the infected person are also screened for Covid-19 and the variant, according to CNN affiliate CNN Prima.

On Saturday afternoon, two cases were confirmed in the UK, two more in Germany and one in Italy. Dozens more are suspected in the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The leading infectious disease expert in the United States, Dr Anthony Fauci, also said that it was possible that the new variant was already in his country but had not yet been detected.

British Secretary of State for Health Sajid Javid said the two cases detected in the UK were linked to a trip to southern Africa, the region where the Omicron variant was first detected. “These people are self-isolating with their households as further testing and contact tracing is underway,” he added.

The German cases, identified in Munich, are two passengers who arrived from Cape Town on November 24, the Bavarian Ministry of Health said in a statement on Saturday.

“The individuals have been in domestic isolation since November 25 following a positive PCR test. Following information about the new variant, the two individuals had the foresight to arrange to be tested for the variant,” the authorities said.

The Italian case is in the southwestern region of Campania, a passenger who arrived from Mozambique, the Italian health ministry said in a statement. He did not disclose the date of arrival or the nationality of the passenger.

Earlier on Saturday, German authorities identified a “suspicious” case of the Omicron variant in Frankfurt in another passenger returning from South Africa. The local health department said it should be able to confirm the complete sequencing of the virus in this patient on Monday.

Dutch health authorities are investigating whether 61 people from South Africa who tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday were infected with the new variant.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said no known cases of Omicron have been identified in the United States and that if the variant emerges, the agency expects cases to be quickly identified. via the country variant monitoring system.

Fauci, the director of the CDC, told NBC on Saturday: “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was [in the US], we haven’t detected it yet, but when you have a virus that has this degree of transmissibility and you have travel-related cases that they have already noted in other places, when you have a virus like this – this is almost invariably going to go everywhere. “

The World Health Organization (WHO) say late friday that early evidence suggests the Omicron variant, first identified in South Africa, may present an increased risk of re-infection and stated that some of the mutations found on the variant were of concern.

GGD Kennemerland, the municipal health department responsible for Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, said positive test results will be reviewed as soon as possible. Those who tested positive were isolated at a nearby hotel, Dutch authorities added.

The discovery of the new variant has raised fears around the world. A number of countries have imposed travel bans and global markets have plunged.

But while the WHO named the Omicron a “variant of concern” on Friday, it stressed that more research is needed to determine if the variant is more contagious, if it causes more serious disease and if it could escape the diseases. vaccines.

“This variant has a large number of mutations and some of these mutations have disturbing characteristics,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical officer for Covid-19, said on Friday.

“Right now there are a lot of studies going on… so far there is little information but these studies are ongoing, so we need the researchers to have the time to do them and the WHO will inform the public, our partners and our Member States as soon as possible, because we have more information, “she added.

Lawrence Young, virologist and professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School in the UK, said the Omicron variant was “of great concern”.

“This is the most highly mutated version of the virus that we have seen to date. This variant carries some changes that we have seen before in other variants, but never all together in a virus. It also has new mutations. “Young said in a statement. .

The variant has a high number of mutations, about 50 in total. Importantly, South African genomic scientists said on Thursday that more than 30 of the mutations had been found in the spike protein – the structure that the virus uses to enter the cells it attacks.
What we know about the Omicron variant

Scientists praised South African health authorities for their rapid response to a Covid-19 outbreak in the country’s Gauteng province, which led to the discovery of the new variant.

When cases in the province began to increase at a higher rate than elsewhere, health experts focused on sequencing samples from those who tested positive, allowing them to quickly identify the variant B.1.1.529.

Peacock said the South African Department of Health and its scientists “must be applauded for their response, their science and for sounding the alarm to the world.”

She added that the development shows how important it is to have excellent sequencing abilities and to share your expertise with others. This message was reinforced by the WHO, which on Friday called on countries to step up their surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand the variants of the coronavirus.

CNN’s Martin Goillandeau, David McKenzie, Ghazi Balkiz, Laura Smith-Spark, Sharon Braithwaite, Antonia Mortensen, Tim Lister, Nadine Schmidt, Mia Alberti, AJ Davis, Jonny Hallam, Jake Kwon and Lauren Lau contributed reporting.

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