Ariel Schalit / AP
HAAG, The Netherlands – On Sunday, the Netherlands confirmed 13 cases of the new omicron variant of coronavirus, and Australia found two when the countries with half a world apart became the latest to discover it in travelers arriving from southern Africa.
A number of borders imposed by nations around the world as they struggle to curb the spread of the variant also grew, and Israel decided on Sunday to prevent foreign nationals from accessing the hardest move to date.
Confirmed or suspected cases of New variant has already appeared in several European countries, in Israel and in Hong Kong, a few days after it was identified by researchers in South Africa. The “act first, ask questions later” approach reflected growing alarm about the emergence of a potentially more contagious variant, nearly two years into a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people, changed lives and disrupted economies across the globe.
While there is still much to learn about the new variant, researchers are concerned that it may be more resistant to protection from vaccines and could mean the pandemic lasts longer than expected.
The Dutch public health authority confirmed that 13 people who arrived from South Africa on Friday have so far tested positive for omicron. They were among 61 people tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport before a flight ban was implemented. They were immediately put in solitary confinement, most at a nearby hotel, while sequencing was carried out.
Authorities in Australia said two overseas travelers arriving in Sydney from Africa were the first in the country to test positive for the omicron variant. Arrivals from nine African countries are now required to quarantine a hotel on arrival. Two German states reported a total of three cases of returning travelers over the weekend.
Israel moved to ban the entry of foreigners and to quarantine all Israelis arriving from abroad.
“Restrictions on the country’s borders are not an easy step, but they are a temporary and necessary step,” said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the start of the weekly government meeting.
Ariel Schalit / AP
Dr. Ran Balicer, head of the government’s advisory panel on COVID-19, told Israel’s Kan public radio that the new measures were necessary for the “war train” around the new variant, saying it was “better to act early and strictly” to prevent its spread.
Dutch Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said he had asked his country’s public health institute for advice on whether further travel restrictions were needed, but he said he wanted to coordinate with his EU colleagues because “I think it are really steps that we will have to take together. “
Many countries have restricted or banned travel from various South African countries – among the most recent are New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Saudi Arabia. Places that had already imposed restrictions include Brazil, Canada, the EU, Iran and the United States. This is contrary to the advice of the World Health Organization, which has warned against any overreaction before the variant has been thoroughly studied.
The South African government reacted angrily to the travel bans, which it said are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new varieties more quickly.” It said it would try to persuade the countries that have instructed them to reconsider.
“While we respect the right of all countries to take the necessary measures to protect their citizens, we must remember that this pandemic requires cooperation and the sharing of expertise,” said Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor in a statement.
America’s best expert in infectious diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said he would not be surprised if the omicron variant was already in the US, even though it has not yet been discovered there.
In Europe, much of which has already struggled with a sharp rise in cases in recent weeks, officials were also on guard.
Britain on Saturday tightened the rules for mask wearing and testing international arrivals after finding two omicron cases. Spain announced that it will not admit unvaccinated British visitors from 1 December.
Italy reviewed lists of air passengers arriving within the last two weeks after a business traveler returning from Mozambique and landing in Rome on 11 November tested positive for omicron. The Lazio region’s top health official, Alessio D’Amato, said “controls at airports, ports and train stations have been strengthened.”
French Health Minister Olivier Veran said that although his country did not yet have confirmed cases, “it is likely that there are currently cases in circulation.”
Although it is not yet clear how existing vaccines work against the omicron variant, Veran said France is not changing its strategy to combat the recent increase in infections driven by the delta variant, which focuses on increasing vaccinations and boosters.
David Hui, a respiratory medicine expert and government adviser on the Hong Kong pandemic, said that while it is not clear whether current coronavirus vaccines are effective against the new variant, the city’s vaccination rate should be increased and booster doses should be implemented as soon as possible.
He said the two people who tested positive for the omicron variant had received the BioNTech-Pfizer syringe and showed very mild symptoms, such as a sore throat.
“Vaccines should work, but there would be some reduction in effectiveness,” he said.