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Omicron: The world is on high alert over new coronavirus variant

CNN logo CNN 11/28/2021 By Ivana Kottasová, CNN
People line up to get on the Air France flight to Paris at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021. A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant that has been detected in South Africa. Scientists say it is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country's most populous province. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay) © Jerome Delay/AP People line up to get on the Air France flight to Paris at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021. A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible COVID-19 variant that has been detected in South Africa. Scientists say it is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country's most populous province. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

As fears mount over the newly identified coronavirus variant Omicron, governments around the world are scrambling to protect their citizens from a potential outbreak.

The new mutation, which is potentially more transmissible, was first discovered in South Africa and has since been detected in Australia, United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic and Hong Kong.

Israel is banning all foreigners from entering the country in response to Omicron fears, authorities announced Saturday. The ban, pending government approval, is expected to last two weeks. Israelis returning from a country on the red list, which includes countries in southern Africa, will be required to isolate for seven days in a designated hotel.

There are seven suspected cases of the variant in Israel, in addition to one confirmed case found in a person returning from Malawi, its Health Ministry said.

Two Omicron cases have been detected in Australia after travelers from southern Africa arrived in Sydney, the New South Wales Health Ministry said Sunday.

The two travelers are in isolation along with 12 other passengers who came from southern Africa, the ministry said.

Both cases are people who are fully vaccinated and asymptomatic, it added.

Australia has banned the entry of foreigners who have traveled to nine southern African countries in the past 14 days, including South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, and Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, South Korea has imposed restrictions on travelers from eight southern African countries, its Disease Control and Prevention Agency announced Saturday.

Foreign nationals traveling from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique are banned from entering South Korea, the agency said. The issuing of visas for nationals from those countries has been suspended until further notice, it added.

Korean nationals entering from those countries must quarantine in a government-designated facility for 10 days.

What's happening in Europe?

Europe is also frantically imposing travel bans and scrambling to ramp up its coronavirus sequencing abilities after several countries on the continent reported suspected Omicron cases.

A suspected case of the variant was discovered in Innsbruck, western Austria, after a traveler who recently arrived from South Africa tested positive for Covid-19, the Tyrol state government said Saturday.

Samples from the case have been sent to the capital of Vienna, and results are expected in the coming days, authorities said.

Meanwhile, scientists at the Regional Hospital in Liberec, Czech Republic, told CNN Saturday that one case of the Omicron variant was detected in a traveler who arrived from Namibia. Eight other people that traveled with the infected person are also being checked for Covid-19 and the variant, according to CNN affiliate CNN Prima.


Video: New Covid variant Omicron alarms world, restricts travel (CNN)

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By Saturday afternoon, two cases were confirmed in the UK, two others in Germany and one in Italy. Dozens more are suspected in the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. The top infectious disease expert in the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, also said it was possible the new variant was already in his country but was yet to be detected.

UK's Secretary of State for Health Sajid Javid said the two cases detected in the UK were linked to travel to southern Africa, the region where the Omicron variant was first detected. "These individuals are self-isolating with their households while further testing and contact tracing is underway," he added.

The German cases, identified in Munich, are two passengers who arrived from Cape Town on November 24, the Bavarian Ministry of Health said in a statement on Saturday.

"The individuals have been in domestic isolation since Nov. 25 following a positive PCR test. Following reports of the new variant, the two individuals had the foresight to arrange for themselves to be tested for the variant," authorities said.

The Italian case is in the southwestern region of Campania, a passenger who arrived from Mozambique, Italy's Health Ministry said in a statement. It didn't disclose the date of the passenger's arrival or nationality.

Earlier on Saturday, German authorities had identified a "suspected" case of the Omicron variant in Frankfurt from another passenger who returned from South Africa. The local health department said it should be able to confirm the full sequencing of the virus in this patient on Monday.

Dutch health authorities are investigating whether 61 people traveling from South Africa who tested positive for Covid-19 on Friday were infected with the new variant.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that no known Omicron cases have been identified in the United States, and that if the variant emerges, the agency expects that cases would be quickly identified through the nation's variant surveillance system.

The French government extended its suspension of flights from seven southern African countries on Sunday. The ban was scheduled to be in place until midnight on Sunday evening but was extended to midnight Tuesday evening.

Fauci, the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden and director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC Saturday, "I would not be surprised if it is [in the US], we have not detected it yet, but when you have a virus that is showing this degree of transmissibility and you're having travel-related cases they've noted in other places already, when you have a virus like this, it almost invariably is going to go all over."

The World Health Organization (WHO) said late on Friday that early evidence suggest the Omicron variant, first identified in South Africa, could pose an increased risk of reinfection and said that some of the mutations detected on the variant were concerning.

GGD Kennemerland, the municipal health service responsible for the Amsterdam Schiphol airport, said the positive test results would be examined as soon as possible. Those who tested positive were sent into isolation at a nearby hotel, the Dutch authorities added.

The discovery of the new variant has sparked fears around the world. A number of countries have imposed travel bans and the global markets plunged.

But while WHO designated the Omicron a "variant of concern" on Friday, it stressed that more research is needed to determine whether the variant is more contagious, whether it causes more severe disease, and whether it could evade vaccines.

"This variant has a large number of mutations and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics," Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's technical lead for Covid-19, said in a statement on Friday.

"Right now there are many studies that are underway ... so far there's little information but those studies are underway so we need researchers to have the time to carry those out and WHO will inform the public and our partners and our member states as soon as we have more information," she added.

Lawrence Young, a virologist and a professor of molecular oncology at Warwick Medical School in the United Kingdom, said the Omicron variant was "very worrying."

"It is the most heavily mutated version of the virus we have seen to date. This variant carries some changes we've seen previously in other variants but never all together in one virus. It also has novel mutations," Young said in a statement.

The variant has a high number of mutations, about 50 overall. Crucially, South African genomic scientists said Thursday more than 30 of the mutations were found in the spike protein -- the structure the virus uses to get into the cells they attack.

Scientists have praised South African health authorities for their quick reaction to a Covid-19 outbreak in the country's Gauteng province, which led to the discovery of the new variant.

When cases in the province started to rise at a higher rate than elsewhere, health experts focused on sequencing samples from those who tested positive, which allowed them to quickly identify the B.1.1.529 variant.

Sharon Peacock, a professor of Public Health and Microbiology at the University of Cambridge, said the South African Health Ministry and its scientists "are to be applauded in their response, their science, and in sounding the alarm to the world."

She added the development shows how important it is to have excellent sequencing capabilities and to share expertise with others. That message was reinforced by WHO, which has on Friday called on countries to enhance their surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand coronavirus variants.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Dr. Anthony Fauci. He is the director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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