Dutch Cluster Suggests Omicron Has a Foothold in Europe

( Bloomberg )

The 13 omicron Covid-19 cases identified in the Netherlands on Sunday suggest the new variant already has a strong foothold in Europe.

Vaccine makers are racing to evaluate the new strain to see if new formulations will be required. There are indications the symptoms associated with omicron are mild, a top South African scientist said.

Dutch authorities said they found the cases among 61 people who tested positive for Covid on two flights that arrived from southern Africa on Friday.

About 10% of the travelers on the flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg tested positive for Covid-19. Analysis of the remaining samples is continuing, said Dutch Health Minister Hugo de Jonge. The other travelers have dispersed around Europe and the world.

“It is not unlikely more cases will appear in the Netherlands,” de Jonge told a news conference in Rotterdam. “This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg.”

The Dutch cases mark the most widespread incidence of the new strain in Europe found so far, but the variant has been confirmed or is suspected in at least seven other countries.

Germany on Sunday confirmed three cases among people who arrived last week from southern Africa: two into Munich and one into Frankfurt.

Cases confirmed by the U.K. on Saturday and Denmark on Sunday also involved travelers from southern Africa. Austria, Belgium and the Czech Republic have suspected or confirmed cases. Australia, Hong Kong and Israel have identified cases, too.

In Campania, Italy, a double-vaccinated traveler who’d recently returned from Mozambique was confirmed as having the new variant, according to Italy’s National Health Institute. The man’s family was also positive and is isolating, with tests under way to determine the strain, authorities said.

The swift emergence of omicron threatens to hammer Europe as governments try to deal with a fourth wave of coronavirus cases driven by the infectious delta strain.

Austria is in its fourth coronavirus lockdown, the Netherlands has imposed a series of tighter measures, and Germany’s health care system is straining. In many countries, vaccine coverage is far short of levels thought to confer herd immunity -- even as a new strain emerges that may elude current shots.

Governments have used the new variant to once again urge residents to get vaccinated -- either with their initial shots or with boosters. The U.K. is leaning on a strong vaccination program as its best defense, and will accelerate booster shots.

Global markets were upended on Friday as the news of the latest mutation spurred investors to seek havens rather than bet on assets tied to economic growth. Markets in the Middle East followed when trading opened on Sunday.

The European Union moved on Friday to shut down air traffic from southern Africa, and much of the world has followed. The cases so far have been in people who flew before the restrictions were made.

The omicron strain has spread rapidly in South Africa, pushing daily coronavirus cases into the thousands from a few hundred earlier in the month.

The variant appears to be highly contagious, but it’s unknown how the symptoms compare with other strains of the virus, or whether current vaccines are less effective.

Barry Schoub, chair of South Africa’s ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19 vaccines, said Sunday that symptoms associated with the new variant may turn out to be less serious.

“Because it has got all these mutations, it does in fact destabilize the virus, it might make it less fit” than the currently dominant delta strain, Schoub said on the BBC’s “Andrew Marr Show.”

“The cases that have occurred so far have all been mild cases, mild to moderate cases, and that’s a good sign.”

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