Fears mount as fresh cases of new Covid-19 variant emerge in Europe

SINGAPORE – Fears grew in Europe on Saturday (Nov 28) over the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus first identified in South Africa, as Britain confirmed two cases.

“The two cases are linked and there is a connection with travel to southern Africa,” Health Minister Sajid Javid wrote on Twitter.

Suspected cases were also reported in Germany and the Czech Republic.

Mr Kai Klose, Social Affairs Minister in Germany’s western state of Hesse, tweeted that tests on Friday on a traveller who had arrived at Frankfurt international airport from South Africa revealed “several mutations typical of Omicron”.

In the neighbouring Czech Republic, a vaccinated woman who had flown from Namibia via South Africa and Dubai was identified as a suspected carrier of the variant.

In Amsterdam, the Dutch authorities quarantined dozens of passengers from South Africa after they tested positive for Covid-19. Their results were being examined for Omicron.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) was first alerted to Omicron by South Africa last Wednesday, and on Friday it disclosed that the variant was being considered as “of concern”.

The label “variant of concern” indicates the strain poses additional risks to global public health.

WHO also said that Omicron appeared to be increasing in all of South Africa’s provinces. It was first identified in Gauteng province.

The new variant – which has a large number of mutations and is believed to have an increased risk of re-infection compared with other variants of concern – has also been detected in Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.

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More than 30 cases of Omicron have been recorded so far, with 22 reported in South Africa as at Thursday.

Many countries, including Singapore, have moved to ban travellers from up to nine countries in southern and eastern Africa, a move criticised by South Africa’s foreign ministry, which said it was “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker”.

In scenes reminiscent of pre-vaccine days of Covid-19, airports in South Africa were filled with tourists scrambling to go home before restrictions kicked in.

A KLM flight to Amsterdam was delayed when passengers were told they had to test negative for Covid-19 before departure, the Agence France-Presse reported.

The new rule was imposed as 61 passengers on two KLM flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to Amsterdam tested positive on Friday.

Prices of tickets out of Johannesburg have also soared with figures online showing that the price of the least expensive flight from the city to London quadrupled to 17,718 rand (S$1,492).

Singapore Airlines (SIA) said on Saturday that some SIA passenger services between Singapore, Johannesburg and Cape Town have been converted to cargo-only flights.

In Singapore, experts told The Straits Times that more information was needed before determining if current pandemic protocols should change.

“If there is clear evidence that Omicron increases the risk of disease and death even for the vaccinated, then countries will need to review the relevance of endemic Covid-19 strategies,” said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore.

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“At the moment, it is still too early to determine whether the outlook is going to be pessimistic or optimistic,” he added.


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