As the world waits to find out how dangerous the super-mutated COVID variant Omicron might be, three more European nations confirmed cases of the virus on Saturday and Dutch authorities revealed that 61 people arriving on two flights from South Africa have tested positive for COVID.
German authorities confirmed two cases of the variant, CNN reported Saturday. The two positive individuals were identified in Munich and had just arrived on a Nov. 24 flight from Cape Town, South Africa. Fifty other passengers from the same flight remain quarantined, according to CNN.
The U.K. said it detected its first two cases on Saturday, both linked to recent travel from southern Africa. And in Italy, a case of the variant was detected in Milan in a person who had recently traveled from Mozambique, Reuters reported.
Health authorities in Australia and the Czech Republic are also examining possible cases of the variant in people who had recently spent time in Namibia and other unspecified southern African nations.
Although the United States has not yet confirmed any cases of the Omicron variant, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Saturday that he wouldn’t be surprised if the variant was already circulating in the country.
“We have not detected it yet,” he told Weekend TODAY, “but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you’re already having travel-related cases that they’ve noted in Israel and Belgium and other places, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is ultimately going to go essentially all over.”
Dutch authorities said Saturday that 61 people arriving on two KLM flights from South Africa—where the strain has been spreading—have tested positive.
It’s not known whether the passengers were infected with Omicron or an earlier version of the coronavirus, but the discovery underscores the possibility that the new variant has already gone global.
Previously, cases had been identified only in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, and Belgium—all of them travelers from countries in southern African.
The emergence of Omicron caused an international freakout, with the U.S., the U.K., and other nations banning travel from South Africa and its neighbors and the stock market taking its worst plunge of the year.
“It seems to spread rapidly,” President Joe Biden said in announcing the travel restrictions. “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.”
But the South African government hit back on Saturday, complaining that the country was being punished with travel bans rather than lauded for its quick work in detecting the variant.
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” the country‘s foreign ministry said in a statement, adding that bans were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”
The head of the South African Medical Association, Dr. Angelique Coetzee, told the BBC that the cases found so far in South Africa did not appear to be severe.
“The patients are mostly complaining about a sore body and tiredness, extreme tiredness and we see it in the younger generation, it’s not the older people... We’re not talking about patients that might go straight to a hospital and be admitted,” Coetzee was quoted saying. Only about 24 percent of the population is fully vaccinated in South Africa.
Nevertheless, the positive tests from the two KLM flights that landed at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport dramatically illustrated the potential threat. Health experts believe Omicron is behind South Africa’s recent COVID surge—and 10 percent of those on the jets were infected.
Those fliers are now in quarantine, but the specter of other infected travelers slipping through testing protocols and going on to their destinations undetected looms large.
While there have been plenty of COVID variants identified—including the Delta strain that sparked this year’s deadly surge—Omicron is of particular concern because it has more than 30 mutations to the spike protein that allows the virus to bind to human cells.
Public health officials are trying to determine if that makes it more transmissible—even in the vaccinated—and whether it causes more severe illness or carries a higher risk of death.
With so little known, many scientists are warning people to be cautious but not to panic.
“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,” Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group told the BBC.