Several European nations on Saturday (Nov 27) announced their first cases of a highly infectious new coronavirus strain, as governments worldwide began pulling down the shutters to contain the new Omicron variant.
Britain, Germany and Italy confirmed their first cases of the new Covid-19 strain, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for Covid-19.
South Africa complained it was being punished with air travel bans for having first detected the strain, which the World Health Organization has termed a ‘variant of concern’.
A series of countries across the world began restricting travel from the region, to try to head off any threat to global efforts against the pandemic.
Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, particularly whether it can evade existing vaccines. It has already proved to be more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant.
Travellers thronged Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many of these people had cut short holidays, rushing back from South African safaris and vineyards.
The virus has already slipped through the net, with cases discovered in Europe, Hong Kong and Israel and in southern Arica.
Britain on Saturday announced tougher entry rules for all arriving passengers and the return of a mask mandate, after confirming its first two cases of the new Omicron strain of Covid-19.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said face masks would again be required in shops and on public transport.
A hospital in the Czech Republic confirmed a case of the Omicron variant in a female patient who had travelled from Namibia.
Germany confirmed its first two cases in travellers who arrived at Munich airport from South Africa.
Italy announced its first case of the new Covid strain in a traveller from Mozambique.
And Dutch officials said the Omicron variant was probably among 61 passengers who had arrived on two flights from South Africa a day before and tested positive for Covid-19.
In the United States, a White House official said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the Omicron situation and that health officials were monitoring events.
Already on Friday Belgium announced its first case in an unvaccinated person returning from abroad.
The WHO said it could take several weeks to understand the variant, which was initially known as B.1.1.529. It cautioned against travel curbs while scientific evidence remains scant.