After the discovery of the variant last month in the densely populated South African province of Gauteng, panic set in. Several countries imposed bans on flights from countries in southern Africa (South Africa, Lesotho, Eswatini, Botswana, Malawi, Namibia and Zimbabwe) or entry bans for residents of those countries.
That has not prevented the spread of omikron. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the variant has been identified in 25 countries. Greece is currently the last country to join the list for the time being. The first case in the United States was also discovered yesterday, in a traveler coming from South Africa.
It has since become clear that the variant has also come to Europe from other African countries. France confirms this morning that the new variant has been detected in a traveler from Nigeria, in West Africa.
It makes clear that omikron is spreading easily and quickly across borders and within countries. In Israel, for example, a patient took the variant from Malawi and traveled with it by public transport. An omikron-infected person in Italy also traveled around the country for days before testing positive.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, says it is a ‘race against time’ to limit the advance of the omikron variant. “Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” she said yesterday.
Australian epidemiologist Paul Kelly calls for calm. According to him, there are no indications that omikron is more deadly than other variants. “Of more than 300 cases now diagnosed in many countries, the symptoms have been very mild or patients had no symptoms at all,” Kelly said this morning.
He also says that there are no indications that the vaccines are insufficiently effective against this variant. “In many of the cases, travelers had already been double vaccinated. But they have not had any serious illness. So we have to wait and gather more information.”
The omikron variant is on the rise in South Africa itself. The variant has now been identified in three quarters of the infections last month. In Gauteng province alone, where Johannesburg is also located, 90 percent of the 1,100 new infections are involved. Omikron is thus well on its way to displacing the previously feared delta variant.
Michelle Groome of the NICD institute, the South African RIVM, speaks in the British newspaper The Guardian of an ‘exponential increase’ in infections in the last two weeks. Where previously an average of 300 new infections per day were registered, there are now 3500. On Wednesday there were 8,561 new cases, almost seven times as many as a week earlier. “The rate of increase is alarming,” Groome said.
The WHO expects to be able to say within a few days how contagious the omikron variant is. In addition, pharmaceutical companies hope to have a clear idea within two weeks to what extent the current vaccines offer protection against the new variant.
“There are no indications that the vaccines will not work, even if their effectiveness decreases,” WHO chief Maria van Kerkhoven said yesterday. “It’s still better to get a vaccine because it saves lives.”
The NICD says based on data in South Africa that the existing vaccines in any case prevent a patient with the new variant from becoming seriously ill or dying. However, the health institute sees that people are now more often infected for a second time than with other variants. “An infection protected against the delta variant, but that does not seem to be the case with the omikron variant,” said researcher Anne von Gottberg.
A team from the WHO’s African Department is going to South Africa to assist with source and contact investigations in the affected Gauteng region and to monitor developments around the variant.