The first suspected cases of the Omicron Covid variant in Germany and the Czech Republic are being investigated, as Dutch authorities scramble to see if 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for Covid-19 have the new variant.
Omicron, first identified in South Africa and known officially as B.1.1.529, has already been detected in travellers in Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, according to reports.
Australia and several other countries joined those imposing restrictions on travel from southern Africa on Saturday after the discovery of the variant – described by the World Health Organization as “of concern” – triggered a selloff on global stock markets
In Germany, a minister in the state of Hesse said on Saturday the variant had probably arrived in a traveller returning from South Africa.
“Last night several Omicron-typical mutations were found in a traveller returning from South Africa,” tweeted Kai Klose, the social affairs minister in Hesse, home to Frankfurt international airport.
Dozens of people who arrived in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for Covid. Tests are under way to establish if any have the Omicron variant after arriving at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam. The planes arrived from Johannesburg and Cape Town shortly after the Dutch government banned flights from some southern African countries.
The local health authority said those who tested positive would have to quarantine for seven days if they had symptoms and five days if not. Those who tested positive were being housed in a guarded isolation hotel close to the airport, reported NL Times.
The 539 passengers who tested negative were allowed to return home or continue their journeys on to other countries.
One of the passengers onboard was Stephanie Nolen, the New York Times global health reporter, who was on her first flight since the start of the pandemic. She tested negative but said passengers were being kept in a small space at the airport, with many not wearing face masks.
She tweeted: “Probably 30% of people are wearing no mask or only over mouth. Dutch authorities not enforcing. We’re just all in this unventilated room at hour 12, breathing on each other.”
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic is examining a suspected Omicron case detected in a person who spent time in Namibia.
“A lab is checking a possible find of a positive specimen of the Omicron variant. We are awaiting confirmation or refutation of the case,” the spokesperson for the National Institute of Public Health, Štěpánka Čechová, said in a statement on Saturday.
Since the discovery of the variant, described by senior British scientists as the “worst ever” since the pandemic began, countries around the world have been scrambling to introduce travel restrictions.
Japan has announced it will tighten border controls for the southern African nations of Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia, requiring a 10-day quarantine for any entrants.
The new rules will take effect from midnight local time and come a day after it tightened border controls for people arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho.
Qatar Airways said on Saturday it had banned entry to travellers from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Travel bans from certain African countries have been introduced by the UK, US, Brazil, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Oman and Thailand, among others.
Australia plans to introduce a 14-day quarantine for citizens travelling from nine of the southern African countries.
“Anyone who is not a citizen of Australia or their dependents, and who has been in African countries where the Omicron variant has been detected and spread within the past 14 days will not be able to enter Australia,” the health minister, Greg Hunt, told a press briefing on Saturday.
However, the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, told officials to review plans to ease travel restrictions due to rising concerns over the variant.
Additional reporting by agencies.