The Dutch Institute for Health and the Environment (RIVM, in its Dutch acronym) announced on Tuesday the discovery of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus in samples taken at least 11 days ago. This indicates that this lineage was already present on European soil before the first cases were detected in South Africa. Qualified as “worrying” by the World Health Organization (WHO), which ensures that it is spread more quickly and reduces the effectiveness of treatments, its appearance has generated a chain reaction to stop infections. The EU has shielded itself by suspending flights with seven southern African countries and contacts between citizens have been limited. The United States has taken similar measures with respect to that African region, and the restrictions announced last Friday by the White House went into effect on Monday.
The announcement of the Dutch institute RIVM has been posted on its website and indicates that variant B.1.1.529, baptized as omicron by the WHO, was in samples taken by public health on November 19 and 23. In a special PCR test, both showed an alteration in the spike protein of the coronavirus. Because of this, the institute points out, “the samples were sent to us to see if this result was confirmed.” In the Netherlands, COVID tests are carried out in various national laboratories. When it was found that it was the omicron variant, the RIVM informed the health authorities so that they could notify those affected and their contacts, and the search for the origin of the virus could be carried out. “It is not clear at this time whether these people have been to southern Africa,” the statement added.
Last Friday, 61 people arriving on two flights from South Africa tested positive for coronavirus when landing at Amsterdam-Schiphol airport. Of these, 14 had the omicron variant, out of a total of 624 passengers. “In the course of investigations carried out in the laboratory, variations of the omicron variant itself were found. This means that most likely people were infected separately, and that the source and place were also different, ”says the RIVM.
In the coming days, the RIVM will carry out several studies on the distribution of the omicron variant in the Netherlands. Samples from people who have tested positive upon their return from South Africa, as well as older ones kept by laboratories that now examine PCR results on a regular basis, “and which have shown abnormalities in the protein, will be retested.” The institute indicates that the omicron lineage is being monitored internationally, to find out how contagious it is and the effect of current vaccines.
To date, 42 cases of the omicron variant have been confirmed in 10 countries of the European Union, as explained in the European Parliament by Andrea Ammon, president of the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), who has ensured that all of them are not elderly patients with mild or asymptomatic symptoms. Cases have also been detected in Canada, Japan and Australia.
In Spain, after the confirmation of a case of the omicron variant on Monday in the capital, the Community of Madrid is studying whether a second positive case for coronavirus, that of a passenger from South Africa with a stopover in Amsterdam, corresponds to the new variant, as reported by sources from the Ministry of Health. Two other cases are also being investigated in Catalonia. The Minister of Health, Carolina Darias, has declared on Cadena SER: “The positive for omicron detected in Madrid has mild symptoms. The couple in Catalonia who are being followed, too. Last Friday, when Von der Leyen urged the members to articulate measures, we launched the quarantine order, and today the Council will approve the flight limitations ”.
From Europe to the United States, passing through South Africa, the authorities have insisted on the importance of vaccination. The United Kingdom and the United States have boosted their booster dose programs. And in Greece, the Greek Prime Minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has announced that from January all people over 60 must be vaccinated against covid and, if they do not do so, they will be fined 100 euros. Meanwhile, in Germany, one of the European countries hardest hit by this new wave of covid, the incidence of the coronavirus stops rising after successive peaks day after day since the beginning of November.
However, the questions about how effective existing vaccines are against the new variant remain unresolved. Moderna’s CEO, Stéphane Bancel, in an interview at the Financial Times, He has stated that he believes that current vaccines against covid-19 will be “much less effective” against omicron than previous strains of coronavirus. In addition, he estimates that it will still take months for vaccines that are specific to this new variant to be manufactured in large quantities. The director of the European Medicines Agency, Emer Cooke, said on Tuesday that the agency has plans to accelerate the adaptation of vaccines to the omicron if necessary, a process that he has estimated will take between three and four months.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.