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Covid-19 UK: Two cases of super-mutant Omicron variant are detected in Britain

Two cases of the super-mutant Omicron Covid variant have been detected in the UK, the Health Secretary has announced. 

Sajid Javid wrote on Twitter this afternoon: ‘We have been made aware by @UKHSA of two UK cases of the Omicron variant. The two cases are linked and there is a connection with travel to southern Africa.

‘These individuals are self-isolating with their households while further testing and contact tracing is underway.’

Boris Johnson will hold a press conference this evening to discuss Britain’s reaction to the new strain, with four more countries expected to be added to the no-fly list. 

Last night the World Health Organisation branded the mutation a ‘variant of concern’ as countries including Britain and the US moved to shut their borders to six countries from southern Africa, where the variant is believe to have emerged.  

Its sudden appearance this week sparked panic in Whitehall circles, with Downing Street’s scientists warning it made vaccines at least 40 per cent less effective at preventing transmission compared to Delta and Mr Javid threatening to reimpose lockdown if necessary. 

Britain’s first two Omicron infection came as a spate of cases were found across Europe, with at least 61 new cases of Covid entering the Netherlands from South Africa this morning. Authorities are currently sequencing the tests for the new variant. 

Europe’s first case of the variant was spotted in Belgium yesterday — despite the unvaccinated woman who caught it having travelled to Turkey and Egypt, not souther Africa where the strain emerged.

And Germany and the Czech Republic both confirmed suspected cases today. Germany’s initial sequencing suggests a traveler from South Africa was carrying the virus with several mutations shared by Omicron. Officials are awaiting full sequencing later today. 

And Australian authorities — who also banned travel to nine countries in the region — fear the variant may have already entered the country. 

South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday, more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket in the country and no hospitalisations with the new variant have occurred so far.

And Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, one of the Oxford scientists behind the AstraZeneca vaccine, today expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the variant. 

The US has joined the growing list of countries to close their borders, with Joe Biden saying the pandemic will not end until global vaccinations are in place. New York governor Kathy Hochul yesterday declared a state of emergency as Covid transmission reached rates not seen since April 2020. 

Cases of Omicron have already been picked up in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium. It is not yet known whether the variant arrived in the Netherlands yesterday but Dutch authorities are sequencing passengers’ tests. There are also suspected individual cases being sequenced in Germany, the Czech Republic and Australia

South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday, more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket and no hospitalisations with the new variant have occurred so far. Graph shows: The seven-day average  for cases in the country

South Africa recorded 2,828 new Covid cases yesterday, more than double the 1,374 recorded last Thursday, but infection levels have yet to skyrocket and no hospitalisations with the new variant have occurred so far. Graph shows: The seven-day average  for cases in the country

Red Cross health workers transport passengers infected with coronavirus returning from South Africa for a quarantine in a hotel in Schiphol, the Netherlands, today

Red Cross health workers transport passengers infected with coronavirus returning from South Africa for a quarantine in a hotel in Schiphol, the Netherlands, today

Passengers from KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa wait to be screened at Amsterdam Airport, the Netherlands, yesterday

Passengers from KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa wait to be screened at Amsterdam Airport, the Netherlands, yesterday

A woman from the KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa, queues for her Covid test at Amsterdam Airport last night

A woman from the KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa, queues for her Covid test at Amsterdam Airport last night

At least 61 new Covid cases found in the Netherlands after passengers arrive from South Africa 

At least 61 new cases of Covid have entered the Netherlands from South Africa as fears mount over the spread of the new super mutant variant.

Around 600 passengers arrived on two planes in Schipol Airport, near Amsterdam, from Johannesburg — the epicentre for the new strain — hours after travel bans were put in place. 

The passengers in the Netherlands have been placed in quarantine hotels while the authorities investigate whether they have been infected with the variant. Some complained at being left on the plane for hours with no snacks or water. 

People returning to the Netherlands from outside the EU are required to take to show either a negative PCR tests taken 48 hours before their arrival or a negative lateral flow swab done 24 hours before coming back. 

The test results have to include name and contact information of the institute, doctor or laboratory that conducted the test.

Authorities in the country have just announced the early closure of bars, restaurants and some shops due to the record-breaking surge of Covid sweeping through the country. 

‘We now know that 61 of the results were positive and 531 negative,’ the Dutch Health Authority (GGD) said in a statement  

‘Travellers with a positive test result will be placed in isolation at a hotel at or near Schiphol.

‘Of the positive test results, we are researching as quickly as possible whether they are the new variant of concern, now named Omicron.’

The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday. Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said that passengers already en route to the Netherlands would have to undergo testing and quarantine upon arrival.

Passengers on the two KLM flights, from Cape Town and Johannesburg, said they were kept waiting on the tarmac for hours.

Stephanie Nolen, a New York Times journalist and passenger on the flight, wrote on social media: ‘Vigorous applause because there is a bus that has come to take us somewhere.’

In a later Tweet, she said: ‘Bus to a hall to a huge queue. I can see Covid testers in bright blue PPE far on the distance. Still no snacks for the sad babies.’

A spokesperson for the health authorities in Kennemerland, the Dutch region that oversees Schiphol, said the positive cases were being analysed by a Dutch academic medical hospital to determine whether they are the new strain. 

On another day of coronavirus chaos:

  • The first European case in Belgium was revealed to be an unvaccinated young woman tested positive;
  • The number of patients hospitalised with Covid fell sharply in the UK;
  • An official report concluded that a visit to the theatre or a football match puts you at no more risk of catching Covid than seeing your friends;
  • South African experts suggested there was ‘every indication’ that vaccines were still effective against the variant;
  • Speculation mounted that the discovery of the strain would lead to vaccine experts approving booster jabs for all adults soon;
  • Another 50,091 virus cases and 160 deaths were reported in Britain.

It comes as Mr Johnson prepares to implement fresh travel bans on a host of countries, after Britain halted flights to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe yesterday.

Experts warned Britain could face restrictions being reintroduced in the country this Christmas but the Prime Minister hopes travel bans could prevent the need for another lockdown.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said he fears Britons will not accept another national lockdown to fight off the variant over the winter because of ‘behavioural fatigue’ caused by two years of restrictions. 

Officials in Germany today confirmed the first suspected case of Omicron in the country came from someone returning from South Africa.

‘The Omicron variant has with strong likelihood already arrived in Germany,’ Kai Klose, social affairs minister in the western state of Hesse, tweeted, referring to the strain first detected in southern Africa.

Klose said that tests late Friday on the traveller who had returned to Germany from South Africa revealed ‘several mutations typical of Omicron’.

‘As there is this strong suspicion, the person has been isolated at home. The full sequencing is still to be completed.’

Klose’s ministry said that the person had arrived in Germany, the EU’s most populous country, at Frankfurt international airport, the country’s busiest. 

Meanwhile, Sir Andrew today moved to calm fears in Britain, claiming most of the strain’s mutations are in similar regions seen in other variants so far.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we’ve moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

‘At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed.

‘It’s extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.’ 

Professor Pollard said a new vaccine to combat Omicron could begin ‘very rapidly’ if required.

‘The processes of how one goes about developing a new vaccine are increasingly well-oiled, so if it’s needed that is something that could be moved very rapidly.’ 

South African experts yesterday also attempted to calm the wave of panic over the variant, describing it as a ‘storm in a tea cup’.

Pictured: Passengers wait on their Covid test results at Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands last night

Pictured: Passengers wait on their Covid test results at Schiphol Airport, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands last night

Passengers sit in their seats aboard KLM Flight 598 on the tarmac at Schipol airport in Amsterdam after it landed from Cape Town, South Africa, yesterday

Passengers sit in their seats aboard KLM Flight 598 on the tarmac at Schipol airport in Amsterdam after it landed from Cape Town, South Africa, yesterday

Passengers from KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa, wait to be screened at Amsterdam Airport yesterday

Passengers from KLM flight KL598 from Cape Town, South Africa, wait to be screened at Amsterdam Airport yesterday

This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian 'Delta' variant (red) over time in Guateng province in South Africa, where the virus is most prevalent. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks

This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) over time in Guateng province in South Africa, where the virus is most prevalent. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks

What do we know about the Omicron variant? 

Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organisation as Omicron, as it has around 30 different mutations – double the amount present in the Delta variant. The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before. 

UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana. 

On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium but currently there are no known cases in the UK.

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported. 

Work is also under way to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.  

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will ‘almost certainly’ make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.

Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines. 

Meanwhile, British vaccine task force member Sir John Edmunds said travel bans will not keep the new variant away from British shores but could delay a potential surge in cases beyond the festive period to protect the NHS from further pressure.

Experts however have insisted there is ‘no plausible scenario’ in which Omicron will take the UK back to ‘square one’, and called for ‘calm heads’ despite the halting of flights from southern Africa. 

Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs that, while there was ‘huge international concern’, vaccines had put Britain in a strong position.

Scientists said existing jabs could be tweaked to tackle the variant. And a World Health Organisation representative said that resorting to ‘Plan B’ measures so quickly, such as working from home or vaccine passports, would be an over-reaction.

But news of the variant saw the FTSE 100 — the UK’s leading share index — suffer its sharpest drop since January, closing down at 3.7 per cent, spelling alarm for travel companies banking on winter bookings.

A senior aviation source told the Times there were ‘serious jitters’ in all corners of the industry, adding: ‘There is now a massive question mark over Christmas. It is clear the red list will expand and that will have a massive knock on.’ 

Government sources said ministers ‘want to restrict travel to avoid restrictions at home at all costs’, even if it means risking a serious blow to the travel industry.

Originally known as the ‘Botswana’ variant, the strain was last night named ‘Omicron’ by the WHO and officially designated a ‘variant of concern’.

Its discovery earlier this week was so significant because it has around 30 mutations, including some linked to an increased risk of transmission. One expert described it as the ‘worst’ variant so far.

In a rush to limit the spread, the EU suspended all flights to southern Africa after the first case was confirmed in Europe. Britain had already put six nations on the travel ‘red list’ – and was poised to add two more last night.

A government adviser suggested that the public should be ‘ready for the possibility’ of a return to Covid restrictions. But a senior government source told the Mail: ‘People should not panic.’ 

Omicron is ‘NOT a disaster’, says SAGE expert who accuses other scientists of ‘hugely overstating the situation’ because vaccines will protect against severe disease 

The new Covid variant is ‘not a disaster’ and some people may be ‘hugely overstating the situation’, according to a Sage adviser.

Last night the World Health Organisation branded the so-called ‘Omicron’ mutation a ‘variant of concern’ as countries including Britain and the US moved to shut their borders to six countries from southern Africa, the area of suspected origin.

The variant’s sudden appearance this week sparked panic in Whitehall circles, with Downing Street’s scientists warning that it could be vaccine-resistant and Health Secretary Sajid Javid threatening to reimpose lockdown if necessary.

In a rush to limit the spread, the EU suspended all flights to southern Africa after the first case was confirmed in Europe. Britain had already put six nations on the travel ‘red list’ – and was poised to add two more last night.

But microbiologist Professor Calum Semple today urged calm, insisting that vaccines are ‘still likely to protect you from severe disease’.

The Sage adviser told BBC Breakfast that he supported new travel restrictions on South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe, but added: ‘This is not a disaster, and the headlines from some of my colleagues saying ‘this is horrendous’ I think are hugely overstating the situation.

‘Immunity from the vaccination is still likely to protect you from severe disease. 

‘You might get a snuffle or a headache or a filthy cold but your chance of coming into hospital or intensive care or sadly dying are greatly diminished by the vaccine and still will be going into the future.’

Professor Semple said that while it may not be possible to stop the variant coming to the UK, it is still important to delay its arrival.

‘If you can slow the virus coming into your country it gives you more time for your booster campaign to get ahead of it,’ he went on. ‘It also gives the scientists longer to understand more about the virus in case there is anything we really should be worrying about.’

Asked what other measures he thought were advisable, Prof Semple said he was in favour of compulsory facemasks in shops and on public transport, and handwashing.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said ‘it is extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen’. Speaking to Radio 4’s Today programme, he also insisted that vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the Omicron variant. 

‘That tells you that despite those mutations existing in other variants, the vaccines have continued to prevent serious disease as we’ve moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta,’ he told the programme.

‘At least from a speculative point of view, we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed. It’s extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.’

This week, Mr Javid told MPs in the Commons that the Government ‘won’t hesitate to act’ if further restrictions are necessary.

‘One of the lessons of this pandemic has been that we must move quickly, and at the earliest possible moment,’ the Health Secretary said. ‘We’re heading into winter and our booster programme is still ongoing, so we must act with caution.’

Pressed on whether the Government could implement its Plan B for winter, Mr Javid said the current rules ‘remain the policies that I think we need at this time’.

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