Britain became the latest country on Saturday to report cases of the new potentially more contagious Omron version of the coronavirus as governments around the world sought to shore up their defenses by banning travel from countries in southern Africa.
Amid fears that a recently identified new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines, there is growing concern that the pandemic and related lockdown restrictions will last much longer than expected.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that two people with the Omicron variant have tested positive in the southeastern English city of Chelmsford and the central city of Nottingham. He said the cases were linked and related to travel from southern Africa.
Javid said the two confirmed cases are self-isolating from their homes as well, while contact tracing and targeted testing takes place.
He also added four more countries – Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia – to the country’s travel red list from Sunday. Six others – Botswana, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe were added on Friday. This means anyone arriving from those destinations will have to be quarantined.
“It’s a real reminder that this pandemic is not over,” he said. “If we need to take further action, we will.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, accompanied by his top advisers, will hold a media briefing later on Saturday.
Several countries have imposed sanctions over the past few days on various southern African countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the United States, in response to warnings over the transmission of the new version – against World Health. Organization advice.
Pharmaceutical companies expressed optimism that they can tailor their vaccines to deal with the new variant, although this will apparently take some time.
Despite the ban on flights, there is growing concern that this version has already been widely preferred around the world.
In addition to the UK, cases have been reported in travelers in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong.
Germany also said it suspected a positive case and that Dutch officials were testing whether the 61 people who arrived on two flights with COVID-19 from South Africa have the Omicron variant. The planes arrived in the Netherlands from Johannesburg and Cape Town soon after the Dutch government banned flights to southern African countries.
539 passengers who tested negative were allowed to return home or continue traveling to other countries. Under government rules, people who live in the Netherlands and are allowed to return home must self-isolate for at least five days.
Meanwhile, a German official said it was “highly likely” that the Omicron version had already arrived in the country.
Hesse state health minister Kai Klos, which also includes Frankfurt, said in a tweet that “multiple mutations of Omicron” were found on Friday night in a passenger returning from South Africa who was isolated at home. The sequencing of the test had not yet been completed.
The global health body has named the new variant Omicron, which it labels a variant of concern because of its high number of mutations and some early evidence that it carries a higher level of infection than other variants. This means that people who contracted and recovered COVID-19 may be subject to catching it again. It may take weeks to know if existing vaccines are less effective against it.
With so much uncertainty about the Omicron variant and the likelihood of scientists presenting their findings for a few weeks, countries around the world are taking a safety-first approach, in the knowledge that past outbreaks of pandemics are partly from loose limits. have been affected. policies
Nearly two years after the start of the pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 5 million people worldwide, countries are on high alert.
The rapidly spreading variant among young people in South Africa has worried health professionals, although there was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease.
Several pharmaceutical firms, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, said they have plans to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of Omicron. Pfizer and its partner BioNTech said they expect to be able to replace their vaccine in about 100 days.
Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be more effective in preventing serious disease than the Omicron variant.
Most of the mutations appear in the same regions as the other types, he said.
“It tells you that vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease despite those mutations present in other forms as we have gone through alpha, beta, gamma and delta,” he told BBC radio. “At least from a speculative standpoint we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a newer variant for severe disease, but in reality we will have to wait several weeks for confirmation.”
He added that it is “very unlikely that an epidemic will recur in a vaccinated population like the one we saw last year.”
Some experts said the emergence of the variant shows how the hoarding of vaccines from wealthy countries threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Less than 6% of people in Africa are fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can accelerate the spread of the virus, providing more opportunities for it to develop into a dangerous form.
“One of the major factors driving the emergence of the variant may be low vaccination rates in some parts of the world, and the WHO warns that none of us are safe until we are all safe and taken care of.” must be given,” said one professor, Peter Openshaw. of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.