THE HAGUE (AP) – The Netherlands on Sunday confirmed 13 cases of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus, while Canada and Australia found two, the latest countries to find in travelers from South Africa.
Countries around the world impose restrictions to limit the spread of the variant. On Sunday, Israel decided to ban foreign nationals, the most extreme measure yet, and Morocco suspended all flights for two weeks.
Confirmed or suspected cases of the new variant have already emerged in several European countries, in Israel and Hong Kong, just days after researchers in South Africa identified it. The “do first, ask later” approach reflected growing concern about the emergence of a potentially more contagious variant nearly two years after the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people, disrupting lives and economies around the world.
While there is still much to learn about the new alternative, researchers worry that it may be more resistant to vaccines and could mean the epidemic will last longer than expected.
In the Netherlands, health authorities confirmed that 13 people who arrived on flights from South Africa on Friday have tested positive for Omicron. They were among 61 people who tested positive for the virus on Friday after arriving on the last two flights at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before a flight ban was imposed on South African countries. They were immediately isolated, mostly in a nearby hotel, while the sequence was in progress.
Health Minister Hugo de Jong said he had asked the board of his country’s public health institute if additional travel restrictions were needed, but said he wanted to coordinate with his EU counterparts because “I think these are really the steps we have to take together”.
Australian authorities say two foreign travelers arriving in Sydney from Africa have become the first to test positive for the omicron variant in the country. Now arrivals from nine African countries must self-isolate in a hotel upon arrival.
Health Canada said the first two cases of the omicron variant were found in the country in Ontario, after two people who had recently traveled to Nigeria tested positive.
Germany reported three cases over the weekend.
Israel has taken steps to ban entry to foreigners and has quarantined all Israelis coming from abroad.
“Restrictions on the country’s borders are not an easy step, but a temporary and necessary step,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting.
Several countries have restricted or banned travel from various South African countries, most recently Morocco, New Zealand, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Saudi Arabia. Places that have already imposed restrictions include Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran and the United States. This goes against advice from the World Health Organization (WHO), which warned against any overreaction before the variant was fully studied.
The South African government reacted angrily to the travel ban, which it said “is like punishing South Africa for advanced genetic sequencing and the ability to discover new variants faster.” He said he would try to persuade the countries that imposed the restrictions to reconsider.
The United Kingdom tightened rules on the wearing of masks and testing of international arrivals on Saturday after two cases of omicron were found. Spain has announced that it will no longer accept British visitors who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19 from December 1.
Italy is reviewing lists of airline passengers who have arrived in the past two weeks after a business traveler who had returned from Mozambique and landed in Rome on November 11 tested positive for the virus in Omicron. “Controls have been strengthened at airports, ports and train stations,” said the chief health official for the Lazio region, Alessio D’Amato.
French Health Minister Olivier Veran said that while there are still no confirmed cases in his country, “it is possible that there are cases currently circulating.”
While it is not yet clear how the current vaccines work against the omicron variant, Ferrand said France is maintaining its strategy to combat the latest wave of infections led by the delta variant, which is focused on scaling up vaccines and boosters.