Omicron variant, in at least 20 countries, spread earlier than known

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The heavily mutated new coronavirus variant arrived in Europe several days earlier than previously known, health officials said Tuesday, and the number of countries where it has been found has risen to at least 20, raising the question of whether the pandemic is about to intensify again .

The Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment said samples taken on Nov. 19 and 23 — before Omicron’s announcement on Nov. 24 — tested positive for the variant. Health officials have notified the two infected people and are conducting contact tracing to limit the spread.

Mutations in the Omicron variant strongly suggest it is more contagious than earlier forms of the virus, scientists say. They warn they can’t be sure without more testing and data, but the evidence so far is sobering.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration looked at ways to tighten coronavirus screening for people flying to the United States, including whether all passengers should give a negative result on a test taken within 24 hours of departure.

The concern is that current rules, allowing fully vaccinated people to take a test up to three days before taking off on a flight to the United States, may not be strict enough.

A day after warning that Omicron’s risk was “very high,” the World Health Organization said on Tuesday that unvaccinated people over 60, who are sick or have underlying health risks “should be advised to postpone travel.” In Greece, the prime minister announced that Covid vaccinations would be mandatory for people aged 60 and older, and those who did not book their first injection by January 16 would face fines.

In South Africa, where the variant was first announced and is already widespread, reported new coronavirus cases have risen from about 300 per day in mid-November to about 3,000 per day, the fastest rate of increase in the world. On two flights from South Africa to the Netherlands on Friday, just as a cascade of travel bans from southern Africa was announced, 61 passengers tested positive for the virus, at least 14 on Omicron.

Beyond the question of Omicron’s portability, scientists still have no other answers the world is asking: Are vaccines less effective against it? His treatments? Does Omicron Cause More Serious Disease?

Experts warned against placing too much weight on reports that the variant causes only mild disease, as data is still scarce. Early evidence from South Africa indicates that Omicron, more than previous variants, infects people who already had Covid-19, but that too requires rigorous testing.

“It will take two to four weeks, possibly a little sooner,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the US, at a White House briefing Tuesday before preliminary answers are available.

No Omicron cases had been reported in the United States by Tuesday evening, although the variant has been detected in Canada. US officials say it is only a matter of time and the goal should be to slow its spread.

Brazilian media reported Tuesday that the variant had surfaced in Brazil, meaning it is already on every continent except Antarctica.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sequencing the genomes of 80,000 coronavirus samples each week — about one-seventh of all positive PCR lab tests in the country — and will step up checks on arriving international passengers, the agency’s director, Dr. Rochelle P. Wollensky, said at the White House.

The variant has a very large number of mutations not seen in combination before, about 50, including more than 30 on the “spike” protein it uses to attach to host cells; the peak is the primary target of the vaccines. That high degree of mutation is behind the fears about Omicron and the uncertainty whether those fears are exaggerated.

Several times before, countries have slackened, thinking the worst of the pandemic was over, only to be swept over by a new wave – most recently caused by the highly contagious Delta strain.

Vaccine makers are already reformulating their injections to address Omicron, a step that wasn’t necessary to fight Delta.

And Regeneron, maker of an effective, injected monoclonal antibody treatment for Covid, said Tuesday its therapy may not work as well against Omicron. A U.S. Food and Drug Administration advisory panel Tuesday recommended approval of an oral treatment to reduce the severity of Covid made by Merck, and will soon consider another from Pfizer.

In previous waves of the pandemic, by the time the first cases of the virus or a particular variant were discovered, in reality there were many more and it was already widespread.

But the global supply of vaccines has mainly gone to the wealthiest countries, where many people have now received three injections before the vast majority of Africans have had even one. As long as many people are not vaccinated, the pandemic will continue and new variants will emerge.

“Vaccine equality is not charity; it’s in the interest of every country,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of WHO, Monday at the start of a conference intended to draft an international treaty to coordinate response to disease.

“The time has come for countries to agree on a common, binding approach to a common threat that we cannot fully control or prevent,” he said.

In fact, vaccine doses are becoming more abundant, but African countries still face challenges in distributing and overcoming hesitant vaccines. South Africa recently turned down a shipment, not sure if it could use the doses on time.

The new variant was first found in Botswana on Nov. 11 and days later in neighboring South Africa, where the genome was sequenced by scientists who announced its existence two weeks later. Researchers in South Africa found it in samples dated November 9, and experts have said it’s likely further testing of ancient samples would show it was in circulation even earlier.

In Europe, the number of confirmed cases is small so far, below 100, but officials are bracing for more.

“Is there likely to be community transfer?” That said Sajid Javid, the British health minister, at a press conference. “I think we have to be realistic: there probably is, as we see in other European countries. We would expect the number of cases to increase as we are now actively looking for cases.”

The timing is bleak for a continent already gripped by its biggest pandemic wave to date, forcing governments to drastically scale back plans to stay open for the holiday season.

European countries report more than two million new coronavirus cases every week, more than half the world total, although deaths from vaccinations and improved treatments have fallen compared to a year ago. Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Denmark and Norway all set records for new cases last week; several others reached new highs earlier in November.

Governments in the United States, Europe and elsewhere have banned entry to people – mostly excluding their own residents – who have recently been to South Africa and several neighboring countries.

But the experience of the two flights that arrived in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday evening shows what time such measures can be.

When the travel ban went into effect, all passengers were tested and more than one in ten had the virus; how many other infected travelers have gone undetected is a guess.

Not only did 14 of the passengers from South Africa had the Omicron variant — which was not yet known to the world at the time of departure — but they also had different versions of it, according to the Dutch Public Health Institute.

“This means,” it said, “that the people are very likely infected independently, from different sources and in different locations.”

Reporting contributed by Cora Engelbrecht, Noah Weiland, Rebecca Robbins, Carl Zimmer, Megan Special, Mark Landler and Michael D. Shear.

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