Around 600 passengers arrived on two planes in Schipol Airport, near Amsterdam, from Johannesburg — the epicentre for the new strain that experts fear is 40 per cent more vaccine evasive than Delta — hours after travel bans were put in place.
Europe's first case of the variant was spotted in Belgium yesterday — despite the unvaccinated woman who caught it having travelled to Turkey and Egypt, not souther Africa where the strain emerged.
And Germany and the Czech Republic both confirmed suspected cases today. Germany's initial sequencing suggests a traveler from South Africa was carrying the virus with several mutations shared by Omicron. Officials are awaiting full sequencing later today.
And Australian authorities — who also banned travel to nine countries in the region — fear the variant may have already entered the country.
South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday, more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket in the country and no hospitalisations with the new variant have occurred so far.
And Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, one of the Oxford scientists behind the AstraZeneca vaccine, today expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the variant. The strain makes vaccines at least 40 per cent less effective against transmission, according to the UK Health and Security Agency.
The US has joined the growing list of countries to close their borders, with President Joe Biden saying the pandemic will not end until global vaccinations are in place. New York governor Kathy Hochul yesterday declared a state of emergency as Covid transmission reached rates not seen since April 2020.
It comes as Boris Johnson prepares to implement fresh travel bans on a host of countries, after Britain halted flights to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe yesterday.
Experts warned Britain could face restrictions being reintroduced in the country this Christmas but the Prime Minister hopes travel bans could prevent the need for another lockdown.
England's Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said he fears Britons will not accept lockdown rules to fight off the variant over the winter because of 'behavioural fatigue' caused by two years of restrictions.
No cases have been recorded in Britain so far but Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser of the UK's Health and Security Agency (UKHSA), warned it was 'possible' the strain' is already in the country.
Cases of Omicron have already been picked up in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium. It is not yet known whether the variant arrived in the Netherlands yesterday but Dutch authorities are sequencing passengers' tests. There are also suspected individual cases being sequenced in Germany, the Czech Republic and Australia
Pictured: Passengers wait on their Covid test results at Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands last night
South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday, more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket and no hospitalisations with the new variant have occurred so far. Graph shows: The seven-day average for cases in the country
Red Cross health workers transport passengers infected with coronavirus returning from South Africa for a quarantine in a hotel in Schiphol, the Netherlands, today
Passengers from KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa wait to be screened at Amsterdam Airport, the Netherlands, yesterday
A woman from the KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa, queues for her Covid test at Amsterdam Airport last night
What do we know about the Omicron variant?
Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organisation as Omicron, as it has around 30 different mutations - double the amount present in the Delta variant. The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.
UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.
On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium but currently there are no known cases in the UK.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported.
Work is also under way to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will 'almost certainly' make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant's ability to evade vaccines.
On another day of coronavirus chaos:
- The first European case in Belgium was revealed to be an unvaccinated young woman tested positive;
- The number of patients hospitalised with Covid fell sharply in the UK;
- An official report concluded that a visit to the theatre or a football match puts you at no more risk of catching Covid than seeing your friends;
- South African experts suggested there was 'every indication' that vaccines were still effective against the variant;
- Speculation mounted that the discovery of the strain would lead to vaccine experts approving booster jabs for all adults soon;
- Another 50,091 virus cases and 160 deaths were reported in Britain.
The passengers in the Netherlands have been placed in quarantine hotels while the authorities investigate whether they have been infected with the variant. Some complained at being left on the plane for hours with no snacks or water.
People returning to the Netherlands from outside the EU are required to take to show either a negative PCR tests taken 48 hours before their arrival or a negative lateral flow swab done 24 hours before coming back.
The test results have to include name and contact information of the institute, doctor or laboratory that conducted the test.
Authorities in the country have just announced the early closure of bars, restaurants and some shops due to the record-breaking surge of Covid sweeping through the country.
'We now know that 61 of the results were positive and 531 negative,' the Dutch Health Authority (GGD) said in a statement
'Travellers with a positive test result will be placed in isolation at a hotel at or near Schiphol.
'Of the positive test results, we are researching as quickly as possible whether they are the new variant of concern, now named Omicron.'
The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday. Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said that passengers already en route to the Netherlands would have to undergo testing and quarantine upon arrival.
Passengers on the two KLM flights, from Cape Town and Johannesburg, said they were kept waiting on the tarmac for hours.
Stephanie Nolen, a New York Times journalist and passenger on the flight, wrote on social media: 'Vigorous applause because there is a bus that has come to take us somewhere.'
In a later Tweet, she said: 'Bus to a hall to a huge queue. I can see Covid testers in bright blue PPE far on the distance. Still no snacks for the sad babies.'
A spokesperson for the health authorities in Kennemerland, the Dutch region that oversees Schiphol, said the positive cases were being analysed by a Dutch academic medical hospital to determine whether they are the new strain.
Officials in Germany today confirmed the first suspected case of Omicron in the country came from someone returning from South Africa.
'The Omicron variant has with strong likelihood already arrived in Germany,' Kai Klose, social affairs minister in the western state of Hesse, tweeted, referring to the strain first detected in southern Africa.
Klose said that tests late Friday on the traveller who had returned to Germany from South Africa revealed 'several mutations typical of Omicron'.
'As there is this strong suspicion, the person has been isolated at home. The full sequencing is still to be completed.'
Klose's ministry said that the person had arrived in Germany, the EU's most populous country, at Frankfurt international airport, the country's busiest.
Passengers sit in their seats aboard KLM Flight 598 on the tarmac at Schipol airport in Amsterdam after it landed from Cape Town, South Africa, yesterday
Passengers from KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa, wait to be screened at Amsterdam Airport yesterday
This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian 'Delta' variant (red) over time in Guateng province in South Africa, where the virus is most prevalent. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks
South Africa prepares for new wave of infections
Scientists in South Africa are scrambling to combat the lightning spread of the highly transmissible new Omicron variant of Covid that was first detected in the country.
In two weeks, the variant has sent South Africa from a period of low transmission to rapid growth of new confirmed cases.
Numbers are still relatively low, with 2,828 new confirmed cases recorded on Friday, but Omicron's speed in infecting young South Africans has alarmed health professionals.
'We're seeing a marked change in the demographic profile of patients with Covid,' Rudo Mathivha, head of the intensive care unit at Soweto's Baragwanath Hospital, told an online press briefing.
'Young people, in their 20s to just over their late 30s, are coming in with moderate to severe disease, some needing intensive care. About 65 per cent are not vaccinated and most of the rest are only half-vaccinated,' she said.
'I'm worried that as the numbers go up, the public health care facilities will become overwhelmed.'
Meanwhile, Sir Andrew today moved to calm fears in Britain, claiming most of the strain's mutations are in similar regions seen in other variants so far.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: 'That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we've moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.
'At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed.
'It's extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.'
Professor Pollard said a new vaccine to combat Omicron could begin 'very rapidly' if required.
'The processes of how one goes about developing a new vaccine are increasingly well-oiled, so if it's needed that is something that could be moved very rapidly.'
South African experts yesterday also attempted to calm the wave of panic over the variant, describing it as a 'storm in a tea cup'.
Meanwhile, British vaccine task force member Sir John Edmunds said travel bans will not keep the new variant away from British shores but could delay a potential surge in cases beyond the festive period to protect the NHS from further pressure.
Experts however have insisted there is 'no plausible scenario' in which Omicron will take the UK back to 'square one', and called for 'calm heads' despite the halting of flights from southern Africa.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs that, while there was 'huge international concern', vaccines had put Britain in a strong position.
Scientists said existing jabs could be tweaked to tackle the variant. And a World Health Organisation representative said that resorting to 'Plan B' measures so quickly, such as working from home or vaccine passports, would be an over-reaction.
But news of the variant saw the FTSE 100 — the UK's leading share index — suffer its sharpest drop since January, closing down at 3.7 per cent, spelling alarm for travel companies banking on winter bookings.
A senior aviation source told the Times there were 'serious jitters' in all corners of the industry, adding: 'There is now a massive question mark over Christmas. It is clear the red list will expand and that will have a massive knock on.'
Government sources said ministers 'want to restrict travel to avoid restrictions at home at all costs', even if it means risking a serious blow to the travel industry.
Originally known as the 'Botswana' variant, the strain was last night named 'Omicron' by the WHO and officially designated a 'variant of concern'.
Its discovery earlier this week was so significant because it has around 30 mutations, including some linked to an increased risk of transmission. One expert described it as the 'worst' variant so far.
In a rush to limit the spread, the EU suspended all flights to southern Africa after the first case was confirmed in Europe. Britain had already put six nations on the travel 'red list' – and was poised to add two more last night.
A government adviser suggested that the public should be 'ready for the possibility' of a return to Covid restrictions. But a senior government source told the Mail: 'People should not panic.'
Chris Whitty fears Britons WON'T accept lockdown rules to fight off Omicron super-variant over winter due to 'behavioural fatigue' caused by two years of restrictions
Professor Chris Whitty has said he fears Britons will not accept lockdown rules to fight off the Omicron super-variant over the winter because of 'behavioural fatigue' caused by two years of restrictions.
England's chief medical officer told a panel discussion hosted by the Local Government Association that he worried whether the Government could still 'take people with us'.
It comes as Belgium became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant Omicron, which has been identified in other places including South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
It is though the strain, which has more than 50 mutations - the most ever recorded in a variant and twice as many as Delta - could be more jab-resistant and transmissible that any version before it.
'My greatest worry at the moment is that people... if we need to do something more muscular at some point, whether it's for the current new variant or at some later stage, can we still take people with us?', Professor Whitty said.
Professor Chris Whitty has said he fears Britons will not accept lockdown rules to fight off the Omicron super-variant over the winter because of 'behavioural fatigue' caused by two years of restrictions
He admitted that some of the changes the public has had to make have been 'very destructive' to society and the economy.
However, despite his worries, the chief medical officer struck a positive note, saying he believed the Government will be able to maintain public support for coronavirus measures.
'I think the extraordinary thing has been the ability of the UK population, with very, very small exceptions, to just accept that there are things we collectively have to do to protect one another and do collectively, including things that have been very destructive to social and economic situations for individuals and families,' he said.
'Obviously, we want to avoid having to do those at all if we can, and to do the minimum ones necessary, but will we be able to maintain public support?
'And I think my overall view is, I think we will.
'Provided you are clear with people what the logic is, provided they feel that we're being entirely straight with them as to all the data... but I think that's always a worry.'
Professor Whitty added that the longer the pandemic goes on, the harder it is to know what the public's response will be.
'It's easier to be confident of people's response right at the beginning than it is after people put up with two years of their lives being interfered with...
'You can only do a public health intervention on the scale we've had to do if the majority of the population — and as it turned out, the great majority of the population — support it,' Whitty said.
'What has been really clear is the great majority of people really take this very seriously and do want to have protections put in place.'
The latest YouGov polling shows public support for Christmas restrictions, such as compulsory face masks and working from home, to kerb the spread of Covid-19
He admitted the latest YouGov polling showed public support for Christmas restrictions, such as compulsory face masks and working from home, to kerb the spread of Covid-19.
But the polls revealed there was little support for a ban on indoor socialising and closing pubs and restaurants.
Professor Whitty said it was clear the UK was not 'out of the woods' but said 'the things that are probably the most important... that is heading the right way.'
He said there were three reasons for optimism - that vaccination was 'taking the edge off' school outbreaks, boosters were having a 'material impact' in reducing hospitalisations, and that the European Delta surge had not yet reached the UK.
It comes as Britain's daily Covid cases breached 50,000 today for the first time in a month and deaths crept up by 2 per cent in a week - but hospital admissions were down 12 per cent.