With each passing hour, new restrictions are being slapped on travel from countries in southern Africa as the world scurried to contain a new variant of the coronavirus that has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines.
On Saturday, a host of countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, joined others, including the European Union and the UK in imposing restrictions on southern African countries in response to warnings over the transmissibility of the new variant – against the advice of the World Health Organization.
Despite the shutdown of flights, there was increasing evidence that the variant is already spreading.
Cases have been reported in travellers in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, and Germany also has a probable case.
A German official said Saturday that there’s a “very high probability” that the omicron variant has already arrived in the country.
Kai Klose, the health minister for Hesse state, which includes Frankfurt, said in a tweet that “several mutations typical of omicron” were found Friday night in a traveller returning from South Africa, who was isolated at home. Sequencing of the test had yet to be completed.
Dutch authorities, on the other hand, are checking for the new variant after 61 passengers on two flights from South Africa tested positive for Covid-19.
The authorities have isolated the passengers in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday. They are carrying out further investigations to see if any of the travellers have the omicron variant.
Vaccine inequality could feed into higher transmission of variant
The WHO has named the new variant omicron, labelling 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.
That means people who contracted Covid-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.
In just two weeks, omicron has turned a period of low transmission in the country into one of rapid growth.
Some experts said the variant’s emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Fewer than 6 percent of people in Africa have been fully immunised against Covid-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose.
Those conditions can speed up the spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.
Nearly two years on since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than 5 million lives around the world, there is so much uncertainty about the omicron variant and scientists are unlikely to flesh out their findings for a few weeks.