BRUSSELS – New findings on the omicron variant of the coronavirus showed, Tuesday, that the emerging threat slipped into countries before their defenses rose, with two faraway countries declaring their first cases and a third reporting their presence before officials in South Africa sounded the alarm.
The Dutch health institute RIVM found Omicron in samples dating from November 19 and 23. The World Health Organization said South Africa first reported the alternative to the United Nations health agency on November 24. Meanwhile, Japan and France reported their first cases of the virus. A new variable has once again forced the world to juggle between hopes of a return to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.
Much remains unknown about the new alternative, including how widespread it will be, but a World Health Organization official said on Tuesday there could be a sharp rise in infections in parts of South Africa soon.
It is unclear where and when the variant first appeared, and the Dutch announcement is further blurring the schedule. Previously, the Netherlands said it had found the alternative among passengers who arrived from South Africa on Friday – but new cases precede that.
That hasn’t stopped wary countries from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors from South Africa. Those moves have drawn criticism from South Africa and the World Health Organization has urged them not to use them, citing their limited impact.
Although recent news has increasingly made clear that the travel ban will struggle to stem the spread of the alternative. The Netherlands, Belgium and France have now reported cases of people who were in their countries before the European Union imposed flight restrictions.
Japan announced it would ban all foreign visitors from Tuesday – but that turned out to be too late. It confirmed its first case that day, a Namibian diplomat who had recently arrived from his country.
Meanwhile, German authorities said they had contracted an Omicron infection in a man who had not been abroad and had no contact with anyone who had been.
The World Health Organization warned on Monday that the global risk from Omicron was “extremely high”. And that early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.
The growing number of cases attributed to Omicron in Botswana and South Africa suggests this may be the first sign of a “sharp rise,” Dr. Nixi Gumed Moelitsi, a regional virologist at the World Health Organization, told The Associated Press on Tuesday. .
“There is a possibility that we will actually see a serious doubling or doubling of the number of cases as we go forward or as the week begins,” Gumed Moelitsi said.
After a period of low transmission in South Africa, new cases began to increase rapidly in mid-November. The country is currently confirming nearly 3,000 new infections daily.
The concentration of omicron cases among university students in the capital, Pretoria, is a particular cause for concern because this group is very social – and will soon head home at the end of the year and mingle with friends and family.
Doctors in South Africa have reported that patients have mostly had mild symptoms so far, but many are young people who generally do not get sick from COVID-19 as much as older patients.
However, many officials have tried to allay fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world should redouble its efforts to get vaccines to every part of the world.
The head of the European Medicines Agency, Eimer Kok, insisted that the 27-nation European Union was well prepared for this alternative. While it is not known how effective current vaccines against omicron are, Cook said the vaccines could be adapted within three or four months if needed.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said the latter alternative makes vaccination efforts more important, noting that many have done so before “as long as the virus is reproducing somewhere, it may mutate.”
In the face of the new variable, some have introduced new measures aimed at mitigating the spread.
England has made face coverings mandatory again on public transport and in shops, banks and hairdressers. A month before Christmas, the head of the UK’s Health Security Agency, Jenny Harris, urged people not to mix with others if they didn’t need to.
And with COVID-19 already causing the Summer Games to be postponed by one year, Olympic organizers are beginning to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Omicron “will certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”
Global markets continued to swing every medical news, whether it was worrying or reassuring.
Global stocks mostly fell on Tuesday as investors were cautiously weighing how much damage Omicron could inflict on the global economy.
Some analysts think a serious economic downturn, like what happened last year, could be avoided because so many people have been vaccinated. But they also believe that a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, particularly in tourism, has been significantly delayed.
In a world already wary of the more contagious delta variant that has once again filled hospitals in many places, even in some highly-vaccinated nations, recent developments have underscored the entire world’s need for vaccinations.
“We have vaccination rates in the United States, in Europe it’s 50, 60, 70 percent, depending on who exactly you count. In Africa, it’s 14 or 15 percent or less,” Blinken said.
“We know, and we know, we know that none of us will ever be completely safe until everyone is safe.”
Meldrum reported from Johannesburg. Associated Press journalists from around the world contributed.
US consumer confidence fell in November to a nine-month low