Two cases of the new omicron coronavirus variant have been detected in the United Kingdom, the country’s health secretary, Sajid Javid, announced Saturday as the world anxiously awaits more information on the strain.
The variant was found in Israel, Belgium and Hong Kong earlier this week, while Germany and Italy reported their first omicron cases Saturday, according to The Associated Press.
Not much is known about omicron, except that the potentially worrying variant was first detected in South Africa and has triggered a wave of travel bans restricting flights from the southern part of Africa. The earliest known sample was collected in Botswana on Nov. 11. Officials are currently racing to determine how much protection existing COVID-19 treatments, including vaccines, provide against the variant.
No cases have yet been found in the United States. But Dr. Anthony Fauci said during a Saturday morning appearance on the “Today” show that he “would not be surprised” if the variant is already in the U.S. The case in Belgium has no known link to southern Africa; rather, the young female patient had traveled to Egypt via Turkey, suggesting a wider range of spread.
Fauci explained why the new variant has given scientists cause for concern.
“You would predict, looking at the mutations that have been identified, that it likely will be more transmissible. We don’t know that yet, but you have to be careful and assume that that’s the case,” Fauci said.
He continued: “It also has a bunch of mutations that suggests it could evade the protection, for example, of monoclonal antibodies, and perhaps even convalescent plasma for people who have been infected and recovered, and possibly the vaccine.”
“These are all maybes,” Fauci added, “but the suggestion is enough, and it seems to have spread rather rapidly in South Africa. Even though the numbers are relatively small, the ability to infect people who have recovered from infection and even people who have been vaccinated make us say: ‘This is something you got to pay really close attention to, and be prepared for something that’s serious.’ It may not turn out that way, but you really want to be ahead of it.”
It is too early to tell how dangerous the variant is, but Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who sounded the alarm about the new strain, told The Telegraph the symptoms of omicron COVID-19 are more mild than other versions.
Javid noted that the two British cases are “linked” and “there is a connection with travel to southern Africa.”
The two individuals are self-isolating in their homes ― in the Nottingham and Chelmsford areas of England, respectively ― while officials conduct additional testing and contact tracing. Their two hometown regions are undergoing extra testing as a precaution, Javid said.
“This is a fast-moving situation and we are taking decisive steps to protect public health,” he added.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said at a press conference Saturday that “it does appear that omicron spreads very rapidly and can be spread between people who are double-vaccinated.”
“We need to buy time for our scientists to understand what we’re dealing with,” Johnson said.
The U.K. will subject four new African countries to travel restrictions: Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia. They join a group of nations singled out on Friday for restrictions: South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia. All incoming passengers to the U.K. will be required to take a PCR test for COVID-19 within two days of arrival and isolate until they receive a negative result, Johnson said.
U.S. officials say travel restrictions will go into effect Monday for flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique and Malawi. The European Union and other countries, including Canada, Australia and Japan, have implemented similar restrictions.
South African government officials, however, have pushed back on the world’s rush to slam the door shut on travel from the region. South Africa has a particularly advanced program to detect new COVID-19 variants, and says it is being punished for providing insights on the virus that help scientists and health officials worldwide to better understand the crisis.
In his remarks Saturday, Johnson specifically thanked the scientists from South Africa, but defended the restrictions as a “targeted and proportionate … precaution.”
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his South African counterpart on Saturday and praised the nation’s scientific community for its quick work identifying the new potential threat.
Experts still do not know whether omicron may be more serious than the delta variant, which spread rapidly across the world in 2021. Vaccine manufacturers are currently working to test their shots against the new variant.
The U.K. is relatively highly vaccinated ― almost 80% of people over age 12 have received two vaccine doses, and 88% have received at least one. Boosters are currently only available to front-line health care workers, people with certain preexisting conditions and adults age 40 and up.
By comparison, 74% of Americans ages 5 and up have received at least one shot.