Covid: Suspected Omicron case found in Germany as more countries impose curbs from southern Africa

ITV News Correspondent Emma Patterson has the latest on the international efforts to contain the new Omicron coronavrius variant

The Omicron coronavirus variant has likely arrived in Germany, a state minister has said after mutations were detected in a passenger arriving from South Africa. "Last night several Omicron-typical mutations were found in a traveller returning from South Africa," tweeted Kai Klose, social affairs minister in the western German state of Hesse, home to Frankfurt airport, one of Europe's busiest airports.

The minister, who has urged anyone travelling from South Africa in the last few weeks to get tested, added that the person was isolating.

Flight crew arrives at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany. Credit: AP

The variant, which has been designated as one of "concern" by the World Health Organization, has so far been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

A total of 61 people who arrived in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday have tested positive for coronavirus and are in isolation.

Further tests are under way on the travellers who arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to establish if any of them have the new variant.

OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: AP

Two planes arrived in the Netherlands from Johannesburg and Cape Town shortly after the Dutch government on Friday imposed a ban on flights from southern African nations.

The people who tested positive must quarantine for seven days if they have symptoms and five days if they are symptom-free.

In response to the new variant's emergence, the White House said the U.S will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning on Monday.

Joe Biden issued a declaration making the travel curbs official, with exceptions for US citizens, permanent residents and for several other categories, including spouses and other close family.

“It seems to spread rapidly... I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.” Mr Biden said.

The EU restrictions will apply to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said flights will have to “be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules”.

It comes after Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced a ban on flights to the UK from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia to limit its spread.

No cases of the new strain have been detected in the UK.

People line up to get on an overseas flight at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. Credit: AP

Mr Javid, who said the variant could pose "substantial risk to public health", told MPs there are concerns the variant may be more transmissible, make existing vaccines less effective and may hinder one of the UK’s Covid treatments, Ronapreve.

The six African countries were added to the UK’s travel red list on Thursday evening and passengers arriving in the UK from these countries from 4am on Sunday will be required to book and pay for a government-approved hotel quarantine for 10 days.

Canada is banning foreign travellers to the country from seven African countries, with Brazil and Australia also introducing travel restrictions.

Detected cases of the Omicron variant are said to be going up particularly quickly in the South African provinces of Gauteng, North West and Limpopo.

ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan on how much is currently known about the variant

A number of pharmaceutical firms have said they are working to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of Omicron, which could be more resistant to current jabs.

Pfizer and BioNTech said that in the event of a variant which could escape the effects of the vaccines, the firm expects “to be able to develop and produce a tailor-made vaccine against that variant in approximately 100 days, subject to regulatory approval”.

The German biotechnology company BioNTech says it will know in two weeks how effective its current Covid-19 vaccine is against the new variant, which was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on November 24.

WHO experts said there is early evidence to suggest Omicron has an “increased risk of reinfection” and its rapid spread in South Africa suggests it has a “growth advantage”.

On Friday, Belgium became the first European country to record a case of the new variant, in an unvaccinated young adult woman who had recently travelled from Egypt via Turkey.

The identification of the variant in Europe raises questions about whether the travel curbs from six African countries will be sufficient in stopping the variant reaching the UK.

Mr Javid said discussions are ongoing over the prospect of adding further countries to the red list, telling the Commons the government “won’t hesitate to act if we need to do so”.

Professor John Edmunds, who advises the government as part of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, warned that could create a “very, very, very difficult situation”.

He urged ministers to look at extending travel restrictions and to prepare a plan to deal with Omicron because “at some point we’re going to get this variant here in the UK”.

But Professor Brendan Wren, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said people should “stay calm and not overreact”, adding that scientists can “easily modify vaccines to meet new variants”.

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