As potential cases of Omicron variants emerge, an international rush to shut it down


As more countries banned travel to southern Africa early on Saturday over fears of a possibly more dangerous new variant of the coronavirus, passengers on two flights from South Africa found themselves trapped in a pandemic nightmare.

After about 30 crowded hours on planes, crowded buses and then into waiting rooms, 61 of the more than 500 passengers on those flights had tested positive and had been quarantined. They were being checked for Omicron, named Friday by the World Health Organization as a “variant of concern”, its most serious category.

Everyone, according to New York Times global health reporter Stephanie Nolen, who was on one of the planes, “dispersed around the world.”

The chaos in Amsterdam seemed emblematic of the varied and often scattered responses to the virus around the world, with masking rules, national testing requirements and vaccine mandates differing from country to country and from one country to another. continent to another. (KLM, the airline operating the flights, said only certain passengers were required to show proof of a recent negative test, depending on vaccination status and the requirements of their final destination.)

Such gaps could open avenues for contagion, especially for a potentially threatening new variant.

“That number of people seems like a very high number for this to happen,” said Andrew Pekosz, epidemiologist at the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University.Unless there really are huge amounts of this virus spreading locally that haven’t been detected. “

The Omicron variant is likely to be found in some of the 61 passengers who tested positive, Dutch public health officials said on Saturday. Sequencing is still carried out by the Dutch Agency for Disease Control and Prevention. It was not known how many passengers could have tested positive for the variant.

Those who tested positive for the coronavirus at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on Friday have been moved to quarantine hotels. Those who tested negative could continue their journey or, if the Netherlands was their final destination, they were told to quarantine themselves at home.

The government is also asking thousands of people who have returned from southern Africa in recent days to get tested, even though they have no symptoms.

Omicron is still relatively unknown. It has mutations that scientists say could make it more infectious and less susceptible to vaccines, although none of these effects have yet been established.

The number of confirmed cases outside southern Africa remains low, but there are fears the virus may have spread more widely before scientists find out.

“It would be irresponsible” not to worry about the new variant, said on Saturday to the Corriere della Sera newspaper Roberto Speranza, the Italian Minister of Health, the first country of the European Union to block flights from Africa southern. “This is a new and worrying element.

On Friday evening, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, said on Twitter that she had had “fruitful” conversations with the pharmaceutical companies and that they had “explained their efforts to quickly and fully understand the Omicron. variant and adjust our strategies accordingly. Hurry up. “

The union acted with rare unity in response to the threat posed by the new variant, uniting to restrict travel to and from southern Africa.

Vivian Loonela, spokesperson for the committee, said on Saturday that “Member States have agreed to quickly introduce restrictions on all travel into the EU from seven countries in the Southern Africa region – Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe. “

Mr Speranza, Italian Minister of Health, told Corriere della Sera that he considered it wise “to activate the emergency brake”, adding that “European coordination on these decisions is fundamental”.

One of Mr Speranza’s main criticisms during the first wave of the virus in 2020 was that Italy was left alone and that France, Britain and other countries had failed to act to ban flights from China like Italy did in January this year.

He said the government’s strategy of promoting vaccinations through a strict health pass required to work and participate in a large part of society would not change. The government’s message remained the same, vaccines – and now boosters – were the only way out of the pandemic.

Isabella Grullón Paz contributed reports.


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