BRUSSELS (AP) — Economic powerhouses Japan and France reported their first cases of the omicron variant Tuesday, while new findings indicated the mutant coronavirus had already slipped into Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.
The Netherlands’ RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant. It was last Wednesday, Nov. 24, that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.
That indicates omicron had a bigger head start in the Netherlands than previously believed.
Together with the cases in Japan and France, the finding illustrated the difficulty in containing the virus in an age of jet travel and economic globalization. And it left the world once again whipsawed between hopes of returning to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned in Latvia that “as long as the virus is replicating somewhere, it could be mutating,” which could mean it “can defeat the existing vaccines or induce greater illness or be more transmissible.”
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including just how contagious it is, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine.
But a WHO official said that given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern Africa could soon be witnessing a steep rise in infections.
“There is a possibility that really we’re going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds,” said Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, a WHO regional virologist.
After a period of low transmission in South Africa, new cases began to increase rapidly in mid-November. The country is now seeing nearly 3,000 confirmed new infections per day.
It is unclear exactly where or when the variant first emerged, and Tuesday’s Dutch announcement further muddies the timeline.
Previously, the Netherlands said it found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday — the same day the country and other European Union members began imposing flight bans and other restrictions on southern Africa. But the newly identified cases predate that.
Belgium reported a case involving a traveler who returned to the country from Egypt on Nov. 11 but did not become sick with mild symptoms until Nov. 22.
Japan announced a ban on all foreign visitors starting Tuesday — the same day the country confirmed its first omicron case, in a Namibian diplomat who had recently arrived from his country.
France likewise recorded its first case, in the island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. The patient was identified as a man who had returned to Reunion from South Africa and Mozambique on Nov. 20 — before WHO learned of the variant.
Many health officials tried to calm fears, insisting that vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.
Emer Cooke, chief of the European Medicines Agency, said that the 27-nation EU is well prepared for the variant and that the vaccine could be adapted for use against omicron within three or four months if necessary.
England reacted to the emerging threat by making face coverings mandatory again on public transportation and in stores, banks and hair salons. And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of Britain’s Health Security Agency urged people not to socialize if they don’t need to.
After COVID-19 led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers began to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would “certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control.”
World markets continued to seesaw on every piece of medical news, whether worrisome or reassuring. Stocks fell on Wall Street in the morning after Moderna’s CEO expressed concern about the effectiveness of the vaccines against omicron.
Around the globe, stocks mostly slipped as investors weighed how much damage the variant might do to the economy.
Some analysts think a serious economic downturn will probably be averted because many people have been vaccinated. But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.
By RAF CASERT and ANDREW MELDRUM