The Omicron variant of Covid-19 was present in Europe at least 10 days ago, even before South African health experts alerted the world to their concerns around the transmissibility of the newly identified variant.
The Dutch health authority said it had found the Omicron variant in two local cases going back 11 days, showing it was already in western Europe’s heartland before the reports came out of South Africa on 24 November.
The RIVM health institute said it found Omicron in samples dating from 19 and 23 November. Those findings predate the positive cases found in passengers returning from South Africa last Friday and tested at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.
Despite the global worry, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms so far, but warn that it is early. Also, most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s who generally do not get as sick from Covid-19 as older patients.
As countries around the world disclosed scattered instances of Omicron, from Scotland to Hong Kong, Japan and France, the behaviour of the new variant appeared to be following previous patterns of dispersal and identification that have seen health authorities race to play catchup, with most cases related to travel to southern Africa.
The disclosure of the presence of Omicron in Europe earlier than previously believed came as the European Union’s medical agency chief said on Tuesday it is ready to deal with the new Omicron variant, and that it will take two weeks to have an indication whether the current Covid-19 vaccines will be able to deal with it.
Emer Cooke, the Executive Director of the European Medicines Agency, said if it does require a new vaccine to counter Omicron, it will take up to four months to have it approved for use in the 27-nation bloc.
“We are prepared,” Cooke told EU lawmakers, adding that cooperation with the medical industry is already ongoing to prepare for such an eventuality.
“We know that at some stage there will be a mutation that means we have to change the current approach.”
The emergence of the new variant, which features an unusually large number of mutations on its spike protein, has prompted travel bans and new restrictions in a number of countries, as others – including the UK – moved to accelerate vaccination programmes.
While the overwhelming majority of current coronavirus cases behind the winter surge in infections across Europe remain the Delta variant, some experts fear Omicron could escape the protections of current vaccines and compete with Delta for dominance.
As of Tuesday, 42 cases of the Omicron variant have been identified in 10 European countries, according to the head of the EU’s public health agency.
Authorities in the bloc were analysing another six “probable” cases, Andrea Ammon, who chairs the European Centre for Disease prevention and Control (ECDC), told an online conference, adding the confirmed cases were mild or without symptoms, although in younger age groups.
“For the assessment whether [Omicron] escapes immunity, we still have to wait until the investigations in the laboratories with sera from people who have recovered have been carried out. These are expected in a couple of weeks,” she said.
The variant has been detected in two Israeli doctors, one of whom returned from a conference in London in the past week. The physician who had returned from Britain had probably infected his colleague, a spokesperson for Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv said, adding that the pair had received three doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and so far have shown mild symptoms.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned the global risk from the Omicron variant is “very high” based on early evidence, saying it could lead to surges with “severe consequences”.
Japan confirmed its first case on Tuesday, in a visitor who recently arrived from Namibia, a day after banning all foreign visitors as an emergency precaution against the variant.
A government spokesperson said the patient, a man in his 30s, tested positive upon arrival at Tokyo’s Narita airport on Sunday. He was isolated and is being treated at a hospital.
The new variant was first identified last week by researchers in South Africa.
WHO said there are “considerable uncertainties” about the Omicron variant.
But it said preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from one person to another.
WHO stressed that while scientists are hunting evidence to better understand this variant, countries should accelerate vaccinations as quickly as possible.
Agencies contributed to this article