Third case of Omicron coronavirus variant detected in UK

Understanding level of severity of new strain ‘will take days to several weeks’ – WHO

London: UK Health Security Agency chief executive says it is very likely that   more cases will be found over the coming days. Photograph:  Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty

London: UK Health Security Agency chief executive says it is very likely that more cases will be found over the coming days. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty

 

Britain has recorded the third case of the newly identified Omicron coronavirus variant, the UK Health Security Agency said on Sunday, adding that the individual, who was no longer in Britain, was linked to travel to southern Africa.

UKHSA said that while in Britain, the individual was in Westminster in central London. “Our advanced sequencing capabilities enable us to find variants and take rapid action to limit onward spread,” Jenny Harries, chief executive of UKHSA, said in a statement. “It is very likely that we will find more cases over the coming days as we are seeing in other countries globally and as we increase case detection through focused contact tracing.”

Britain said it will convene an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday to discuss the developments.

Meanwhile, the new Omicron coronavirus variant kept spreading around the world on Sunday, with cases found in the Netherlands, Denmark and Australia, even as more countries tried to seal themselves off by imposing travel restrictions.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible than other variants, or if it causes more severe disease. “Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection,” the WHO said.

The WHO said understanding the level of severity of Omicron “will take days to several weeks”.

Dutch health authorities announced that the 13 cases of the variant were found among passengers who were on flights from South Africa that arrived in Amsterdam on Friday.

More than 60 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa had tested positive for Covid-19.

The discovery of Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” last week by the WHO, has sparked worries around the world that it could resist vaccinations and prolong the nearly two-year Covid-19 pandemic.

First discovered in South Africa, the variant has since been detected in Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.

Health officials in Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, said two passengers who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa on Saturday evening had tested positive for the Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Both people were asymptomatic, fully vaccinated and in quarantine, NSW Health said.

Another 12 passengers from southern Africa were also in 14 days of hotel quarantine, while about 260 other passengers and aircrew have been directed to isolate.

Austria was investigating a suspected case on Sunday and in France Health Minister Olivier Veran said the new variant was probably already circulating there.

Omicron is potentially more contagious than previous variants, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe Covid-19 compared to other strains.

Travel curbs

Countries have imposed a wave of travel bans or curbs on southern Africa. In the most far-reaching effort to keep the variant at bay, Israel announced late on Saturday it would ban the entry of all foreigners and reintroduce counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology to contain the spread of the variant.

Prime minister Naftali Bennett said the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days.

Officials hope that within that period there will be more information on how effective vaccines are against Omicron.

Many countries have imposed or are planning restrictions on travel from southern Africa. The South African government denounced this on Saturday as unfair and potentially harmful to its economy – saying it is being punished for its scientific ability to identify coronavirus variants early.

In Britain, where two linked cases of Omicron identified on Saturday were connected to travel to southern Africa, the government announced measures to try to contain the spread, including stricter testing rules for people arriving in the country and requiring mask wearing in some settings.

British health minister Sajid Javid said on Sunday he expected to receive advice imminently on whether the government can broaden a programme of providing booster shots to fully vaccinated people, to try to weaken the impact of the variant.

The German state of Bavaria also announced two confirmed cases of the variant on Saturday. In Italy, the National Health Institute said a case of the new variant had been detected in Milan in a person coming from Mozambique.

Zhong Nanshan, a Chinese respiratory disease expert, said it could take some time to reach a conclusion on the harmfulness of the new variant, state television reported on Sunday.

Although epidemiologists say travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating, many countries - including the United States, Brazil, Canada, European Union nations, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Thailand - have announced travel bans or restrictions on southern Africa.

More countries imposed such curbs on Sunday, including Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.

Mexico’s deputy health secretary, Hugo Lopez Gatell, said travel restrictions are of little use in response to the new variant, calling measures taken by some countries “disproportionate”.

“It has not been shown to be more virulent or to evade the immune response induced by vaccines. They affect the economy and well-being of people,” he said in a Twitter post on Saturday.

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in Covid-19 infections, with some reintroducing restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread.

The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on huge disparities in vaccination rates around the globe. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7 per cent of people in low-income countries have received their first Covid-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups. – Reuters

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