Nearly two years into the pandemic, a new type of virus has the world on tip-toe — and country after country halting flights from South Africa.
It warns of an “extremely high risk” of spreading in Europe, where Germany and the Czech Republic believe they have detected cases of oomicron.
The first case of the new virus variant, called omikron, was reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) from South Africa on November 24 and was detected in a sample taken on November 9. Omicron cases have also been reported in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel – but most of the around 100 confirmed cases so far have been reported from South Africa.
The European Union’s infection control authority, ECDC, considers there is a “very high risk” that the virus will spread in Europe. The virus mutation has already been detected in a non-immune person who traveled from Egypt to Belgium.
It is also possible that he made it to Germany, says a minister in the state of Hesse. Kai Klose wrote on Twitter that the person who returned from South Africa carried several typical omicron mutations and was isolated at his home while waiting for more samples.
In the Czech Republic, a suspected case of omicrone that was discovered in a person who was in Namibia is being investigated, a spokesperson for the country’s public health authority said in a statement read by Reuters news agency.
Early Saturday, Dutch health authorities announced that 61 of the nearly 600 passengers on two flights from South Africa had tested positive for COVID-19 at Amsterdam airport. They are isolated in hotels and new tests are being carried out to check if some types of infected berries are in the form of an omicron.
Passengers who have tested negative and who have remained in the Netherlands are expected to self-isolate at home. Those who do not live in the Netherlands are allowed to travel farther, according to the country’s public health authority.
Much is still unknown about the new virus variant, but it carries a large number of mutations and has spread rapidly in South Africa, where only about 24 percent of the population is fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
Early data suggests that omicron may increase the risk of re-infection compared to other infectious variants, according to the World Health Organization. This means that people who have contracted COVID-19 and recovered may be affected again.
However, knowing whether an alternative is actually more contagious or whether current vaccines are less effective against omicron can take several weeks to find out.
“We are all very concerned about this virus,” Professor Willem Hanikum, director of the South African Research Institute of South Africa, told The Associated Press.
“The scientific reaction from within South Africa is that we have to learn a lot as quickly as possible. We know very little. For example, we don’t know how virulent this virus is, how dangerous the disease it causes?”
The World Health Organization has warned against hasty and panicked decisions on travel restrictions and called for a “scientific, risk-based approach”. But the troubled world fears the worst because the ongoing coronavirus has caused a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people worldwide.
The uncertainty has led country after country to impose travel restrictions on South Africa and other neighboring countries in South Africa. Australia, Thailand and Sri Lanka are among the most recent countries to join the European Union, the United States, Canada, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and the United Kingdom in terms of grounded flights.
South African Health Minister Jo Bhalla described the travel restrictions as “unjustified”.
“The reaction of some countries when it comes to imposing travel bans and other measures completely goes against the rules and standards guided by the World Health Organization,” he told reporters.
South Africa’s economy depends on tourists from the United States, Europe, and China. Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu described the temporary travel ban as devastating.
Earlier this year, South African diplomats and researchers lobbied the British government to lift a previous travel ban that crippled tourism.
– We were on the British red list and made our way out of it, and now we are back on the red list without being notified by anyone, says Sisulu on South African TV.
Our researchers’ ability to track some of these variables is perhaps our greatest weakness. Now we see how to be punished for the work we do.
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