Mon. Jan 17th, 2022

The highly mutated new coronavirus variant was in Europe several days earlier than previously known, health officials said Tuesday, and the number of countries where it has been found rose to at least 20, raising questions about whether the pandemic is on the rise again.

The Dutch National Institute of Public Health and the Environment said samples taken on 19 and 23 November – before the announcement of Omicron’s existence on 24 November – tested positive for the variant. Health authorities have notified the two infected people and are making contact tracking to try to limit the spread.

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

Late Tuesday night, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it planned to step up coronavirus testing and screening of people flying to the United States by requiring all international passengers to give a negative result from a test taken within 24 hours. hours after departure.

“The CDC is working to change the current global test order for travel as we learn more about the omicron variant,” said a spokesman for the agency, Jason McDonald.

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

One day after warning that the risk from Omicron was “very high”, the World Health Organization said on Tuesday that unvaccinated people over the age of 60 are ill or have underlying health risks “should be advised to postpone the trip.” In Greece, the Prime Minister announced that Covid vaccinations would be mandatory for people aged 60 and over and that those who failed to order a first shot before January 16 would risk fines.

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

Apart from the question of Omicron’s transmissibility, researchers still have no other answers that the world is calling for: Are vaccines less effective against it? Are treatments? Does Omicron Cause More Serious Illness?

Experts warned against putting up too much 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 have already had Covid-19, but it also requires rigorous testing.

“It’s going to take two to four weeks, possibly a little sooner,” before the preliminary answers are available, “said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the top American expert on infectious diseases, on Tuesday at a briefing in the White House.

As of Tuesday night, no Omicron cases had been reported in the United States, although the variant has been discovered in Canada. US officials say it is only a matter of time and that the goal should be to slow down the spread.

Brazilian media reported on Tuesday that the variant had appeared in Brazil, which would mean that it is already on all continents except Antarctica.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sequences the genomes of 80,000 coronavirus samples weekly – about one-seventh of all positive PCR laboratory tests in the country – and will step up checks on arriving international passengers, says the agency’s director, Dr. Rochelle P. Wollensky, said in the White House.

The variant has a very large number of mutations not seen in combination before, about 50, including more than 30 on the “spike” protein it uses to lock onto host cells; the tip is the primary target of the vaccines. The high degree of mutation lies behind the fear of Omicron and the uncertainty as to whether this fear is exaggerated.

Several times before, nations have slackened on their guard, believing 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.

Vaccine manufacturers are already considering reformulating their shots to address Omicron, a move that was not required to combat Delta.

And Regeneron, maker of an effective, injected monoclonal antibody treatment against Covid, said Tuesday that its therapy may not work as well against Omicron. A U.S. advisory panel from the Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday recommended the 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 or a particular variant were discovered, there were in fact far more, and it was already widespread.

But the world’s supply of vaccines has primarily gone to the richest countries, where many people have now received three shots before the vast majority of Africans have received one at all. As long as many people are unvaccinated, the pandemic will continue and new variants will emerge.

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

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

Vaccine doses are actually becoming more abundant, but African countries still face challenges in distributing and overcoming the hesitation with vaccines. South Africa recently rejected a shipment, unsure if it could use the doses in time.

The new variant was first found in Botswana on 11 November and days later in neighboring South Africa, where its genome was sequenced by scientists, who announced its existence two weeks later. Researchers in South Africa have found it in samples from as long ago as November 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 is small so far, below 100, but officials are preparing for more.

“Is it likely that there will be a transfer in the community?” Sajid Javid, the British Minister of Health, said at a press conference. “I think we need to be realistic: this is probably what we see in other European countries. We expect cases to increase, while we are now actively looking for cases.”

The timing is bleak for a continent already gripped by the largest pandemic wave to date, forcing governments to drastically downscale plans to remain open during the holidays.

European countries report more than two million new coronavirus cases each week, more than half the world’s total, but with vaccinations and improved treatments, deaths have dropped 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 reached new heights earlier in November.

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

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

When the travel ban came into force, all passengers were tested and more than one in 10 had the virus; how many other infected travelers who have gone undetected are anyone’s guesses.

Not only did 14 of the South African passengers have the Omicron variant – which was not yet known to the world when they took off – but they also had several different versions of it, said the Dutch Institute of Public Health.

“It means,” it said, “that the peoples were in all probability infected independently, from different sources and in different places.”

Reporting is contributed by Cora Engelbrecht, Noah Weiland, Rebecca Robbins, Carl Zimmer, Megan Specia, Mark Landler, Michael D. Shear and Sheryl Gay Stolberg

By Victor

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