The Omicron variant of Covid-19, first identified in South Africa, has now been detected in countries from the US to South Korea, underscoring the difficulties of curtailing contagious new strains.
Most infections stem from travelers carrying the disease across borders. Israel, for instance, said a confirmed case who arrived from Malawi rode on a bus from Tel Aviv.
Italy’s first case traveled around the country for days before testing positive. The first omicron case was confirmed in the US in a person who returned from South Africa, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
Researchers worldwide are racing to understand the full impact of the new strain, and governments have banned travelers from South Africa and nearby countries on concerns omicron could evade the protection of vaccines and fuel new surges.
South Africa’s daily number of confirmed Covid-19 cases almost doubled from Tuesday as the omicron variant takes hold. The country recorded 8,561 infections in the last 24 hours and a positivity rate of 16.5% on tests, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.
South Africa Early PCR test samples showed that 90% of 1,100 new cases reported midweek in the province that includes Johannesburg were caused by the Omicron variant.
The Omicron variant was found in 74% of the 249 Covid-19 samples that were gene-sequenced in November, the institute said. The delta variant accounted for 22%, compared with 79% in October. Omicron was found in samples in five out of the country’s nine provinces.
Australia’s chief medical officer meanwhile, said there is no indication that omicron is deadlier than other Covid strains, as all cases reported so far are very mild or have shown no symptoms at all. The World Health Organisation’s chief scientist said vaccines will likely protect against severe cases of the omicron variant.
A growing cluster of Covid-19 cases in China’s Inner Mongolia is spreading further afield, with a connected infection found in Harbin in the country’s far northeast. Japan backtracked on a decision to suspend all inbound flight reservations, sowing confusion among travelers. Indonesia extended quarantine times for arrivals and banned government officials from overseas travel.
There is no indication that the omicron variant of Covid-19 is more deadly than other strains, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said in a recorded message Thursday. In fact, the opposite may be true, he said.
“Of the over 300 cases that have now been diagnosed in many countries, they have all been very mild or in fact had no symptoms at all,” Kelly said.
Australia has recorded seven cases of the omicron variant, with two of the infected individuals spending time in the community. Six of those cases have been in New South Wales, the country’s most populous state.
Many of the hundreds of omicron infections appearing around the world are in inoculated individuals, Kelly said. Still, there’s no evidence to suggest that existing Covid-19 vaccines do not work against the latest variant of concern.
Chief Medical Officer, Professor Paul Kelly – COVID-19 Omicron update. https://t.co/sb1nVj4XFL
— Australian Government Department of Health (@healthgovau) December 1, 2021
“Many of the cases that have been diagnosed in many countries around the world, from travelers almost exclusively from southern Africa, have been doubly vaccinated,” Kelly said. “But, again, they have not had severe disease. So we need to wait and watch and gather more information.”
Most global travel is being undertaken by vaccinated individuals, who are able to travel quarantine free to a range of countries prior to the emergence of the latest strain of concern. Australia has delayed reopening plans and several countries have now tightened rules for travelers to help stem the spread of the new variant.