Omicron variant, in at least 20 nations, spread earlier than was known

The severely mutated new variant of the coronavirus was known several days earlier in Europe than before, health officials said Tuesday, and the number of countries where it was found increased to at least 20, raising questions about whether the pandemic is on track. to grow again.

The National Institute of Public Health and the Environment said samples taken on Nov. 19 and nov. 23 – for the nov. 24 announcement of the existence of omicron – positive testing for the variant. Health officials have notified the two infected people and are conducting contact tracing to try to limit the spread.

Mutations in the omicron variant strongly suggest that it is more contagious than earlier forms of the virus, scientists say. They warn that they can not be sure without more tests and data, but the evidence so far is sober.

On Tuesday, the Biden administration looked for ways to strengthen coronavirus screening for people flying to the United States, including whether or not all passengers should deliver a negative test result within 24 hours of departure.

The concern is that the current rules, which allow fully vaccinated people to take a test up to three days before leaving for a flight to the United States, may not be strict enough.

A day after warning that the risk of omicron was “very high”, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday that unvaccinated people over the age of 60, who are ill or have underlying health risks “should be advised to postpone travel.” In Greece, the Prime Minister announced that COVID vaccinations would be mandatory for people aged 60 and over, and that those who failed to book a first shot by Jan. 16 would receive fines.

FILE A technician works in a laboratory at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine in Durban, South Africa, on Nov. 15, 2021. (Joao Silva / The New York Times)

In South Africa, where the variant was first announced and is already widespread, new cases of coronavirus have been reported ranging from around 300 per day in mid-November to around 3,000 per day, the fastest rate of growth in the world. On two flights from South Africa to the Netherlands on Friday, just as a cascade of travel bans from southern Africa was announced, 61 passengers tested positive for the virus, at least 14 of them for omicron.

Aside from the question of omicron transmission, scientists have no other answer to what the world is calling for: Are vaccines less effective against them? Are treatments? Does omicron cause more serious illness?

Experts warned against putting too much stock in reports that the variant only causes mild illness because the data is still sparse. Early evidence from South Africa indicates that omicron, more than previous variants, infects people who already had COVID-19, but that it also requires rigorous testing.

“It will take two to four weeks, possibly sooner,” before preliminary answers are available, Drs. Anthony Fauci, the top expert on infectious diseases in the United States, said Tuesday at a White House briefing.

As of Tuesday night, no omicron cases had been reported in the United States, although the variant has been discovered in Canada. U.S. officials say it’s just a matter of time, and that the goal should be to slow down the spread.

Brazilian media reported Tuesday that the variant had surfaced in Brazil, which would mean it is already on every continent except Antarctica.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducts the genomes of 80,000 coronavirus samples weekly – about one-seventh of all positive PCR lab tests in the country – and will increase controls on upcoming international passengers, said the agency’s director, Dr. Rochelle Wollensky, said at the White House.

A health care worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in the Hillbrow district of Johannesburg on Tuesday, November. 30, 2021.
(Joao Silva / The New York Times)

The variant has not seen a very large number of mutations in combination before, over 50, including more than 30 on the “spike” protein it uses to latch on host cells; The spike is the primary target of the faxes. That high degree of mutation is behind the fears of omicron, and the uncertainty about whether those fears are overblown.

Several times before, peoples had relaxed their guard, thinking that the worst of the pandemic was behind them, only to be flooded by another wave – most recently the one caused by the highly contagious delta variant.

Fax makers are already looking to reformulate their shots to tackle omicron, a step that was not necessary to combat delta.

And Regeneron, maker of an effective, injected monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID, said Tuesday that her therapy may not work as well against omicron. An advisory panel of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday recommended approval of an oral treatment to reduce the severity of COVID, made by Merck, and will soon consider another from Pfizer.

In earlier waves of the pandemic, when the first cases of the virus were discovered as a particular variant, there were in fact many more and it was already widespread.

But the supply of vaccines in the world has mainly gone to the richest countries, where many people now got three shots before the vast majority of Africans even had one. As long as many people are not vaccinated, the pandemic will continue and new variants will emerge.

“Vaccine equity is not a charity; it is in the best interests of every country,” he said. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, head of the WHO, said Monday at the start of a conference intended to produce an international treaty to coordinate the response to disease.

“The time has come for countries to agree on a common, binding approach to a common threat that we cannot fully control or prevent,” he said.

Fax doses are actually becoming more abundant, but African countries still face challenges in distributing and overcoming vaccine hesitation. South Africa recently rejected a shipment, not sure it could use the doses on time.

Siblings meet a traveler arriving at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, Nov. 27, 2021. (Joao Silva / The New York Times)

The new variant was first found in Botswana on Nov. 11 and days later in neighboring South Africa, where his genome was sequestered by scientists who announced its existence two weeks later. Researchers in South Africa have found it in samples from as long ago as Nov. 9, and experts have said it was likely that further testing of old samples would show that it was circulating even earlier.

In Europe, the number of confirmed cases so far is small, below 100, but officials are calling for more.

“Is there likely to be a transfer from the community?” Sajid Javid, the British health secretary, said at a press conference. “I think we need to be realistic: that will be likely, as we see in other European countries. We would expect cases to increase, because we are now actively looking for cases.

The timing is bleak for a continent already gripped by the biggest pandemic wave to date, forcing governments to drastically scale back plans to stay open for the holidays.

European countries report more than 2 million new cases of coronavirus every week, more than half of the total world, although with vaccinations and improved treatments, deaths have decreased compared to a year ago. Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Denmark and Norway all set records for new cases last week; several others hit new heights earlier in November.

Governments in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have blocked access by people – usually with the exception of their own residents – who have recently been to South Africa and various neighboring countries.

But the experience of the two flights that arrived in South Africa from Amsterdam on Friday night shows how late such measures can be.

With the entry into force of the travel ban, all passengers were tested, and more than 1 in 10 had the virus; how many other infected travelers have not been discovered is one’s guess.

Not only did 14 of the South African passengers have the omicron variant – which the world did not yet know when they tuned in – but they also had several different versions of it, according to the Dutch Institute of Public Health.

“This means,” it said, “that people are very likely to be infected independently, from different sources and in different locations.”

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