Omicron: How many countries have reported new variant cases and what are they doing to stop it?

Credit: AP

Just days after being first identified in South Africa, new cases of the potentially more contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus are being reported in countries across the world, leaving governments scrambling to stop its spread.

Because of fears the new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines, there are growing concerns around the world that the pandemic and associated lockdown restrictions will persist for far longer than hoped.

Nearly two years since the start of the pandemic that has claimed more than five million lives around the world, countries are on high alert.

People have been trying to get out of South Africa before travel restrictions come into place Credit: AP

Many have already imposed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa as they seek to buy time to assess whether the omicron variant is more transmissible than the current dominant delta variant.

But restrictions have not stopped the variant from popping up in at least 14 countries in several continents across the globe.

Which countries have reported Omicron cases?

  • Netherlands

On November 28, the Dutch public health authority confirmed that 13 people who arrived from South Africa had tested positive for Omicron.

They were among 61 people who tested positive for the virus after arriving on the last two flights to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport before a flight ban was implemented.

The country was one of the first to impose a travel ban on southern African countries, which came into effect on November 26.

However, on November 30, the Netherlands' RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from the 19th and 23rd were found to contain the variant. This indicates Omicron had a bigger head start in the Netherlands than previously believed.

  • Germany

Two German states reported a total of three cases in returning travellers over the weekend.

Two of the cases were identified in Munich as passengers who arrived from Cape Town, the Bavarian Ministry of Health said in a statement on Saturday.

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Germany has banned travel from several southern African countries saying airlines could only transport German citizens and they would have to quarantine upon arriving home.

It has also imposed strict new limitations on the unvaccinated, excluding them from nonessential stores, restaurants, and other major public venues.

  • Italy

Italy's Higher Institute of Health (ISS) reported the country's first case on Saturday evening as a man who had recently travelled to Mozambique.

Italy imposed restrictions on eight southern African nations on Friday.

  • Belgium

Europe's first reported case of the variant was in Belgium where a traveller had recently returned to the country from Egypt, according to Belgium's chief virologist Mark Van Ranst.

Belgium announced an indefinite ban from southern African countries last week which came into effect on Sunday.

The country has since tightened the rules further, capping indoor events to 200 people.

Kindergartens and primary schools are set to close a week earlier than planned too, while children aged six and above must wear face coverings.

  • UK

There have now been at least 52 cases of the Omicron variant confirmed in the UK as of Friday 3 December.

Officials said individuals who have tested positive and their contacts are all isolating. Work is under way to identify any links to travel to southern Africa, the UKHSA said.

Travel restrictions have been imposed on southern African countries by nations across the world Credit: AP

The British government banned travel from South Africa and several other nations on Friday.

The wearing of face masks is now compulsory in shops and on public transport in England once more, while PCR tests will be brought back in for travellers returning to the UK.

The Covid booster vaccine programme has also been accelerated.

  • Czech Republic

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said the Omicron variant was confirmed in a woman in the northern city of Liberec who visited Namibia and flew back to the Czech Republic via South Africa and Dubai.

The country banned travel from South Africa and several other nations on Friday.

  • Denmark

Danish health authorities said they have recorded two cases of the variant in travellers from South Africa.

The Danish government said on Friday, people would only be able to travel from southern African countries if they had a "worthy purpose" and would still have to quarantine.

  • France

France's health ministry said it had detected eight possible cases of the variant in travellers returning from southern Africa, but further tests are being carried out to confirm it.

France suspended travel from southern African countries on Friday.

  • Portugal

Portuguese authorities identified 13 cases of omicron among team members of the Belenenses football tram.

Authorities reported that one member recently travelled to South Africa.

Its game against Benfica over the weekend had be abandoned at half-time for lack of players.

  • Spain

Spanish health authorities have reported one confirmed case of the Omicron strain in a 51-year-old man who flew from South Africa to Madrid via Amsterdam. He was fully vaccinated and is showing mild symptoms.

Three more possible cases are under investigation.

Spain will ban connecting air routes from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe from Thursday. Spain has no direct flights to southern Africa.

  • Israel

Israel said it detected the new strain in a traveller who had returned from Malawi and was tracing 800 travellers who returned recently from southern African countries.

As a result, the country has banned all foreign visitors.

  • Hong Kong

Hong Kong confirmed two cases of the new variant, one of whom arrived from South Africa, while a further three imported Covid infections are being tested to ascertain whether they are of the Omicron strain.

Omicron has been detected as far as Hong Kong Credit: AP

The city introduced travel bans from southern African countries for all but their own citizens on Friday.

  • Japan

Japan has confirmed its first case of the Omicron coronavirus variant after a test on a visitor who recently arrived from Namibia in southern Africa.

Chief cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the man in his 30s tested positive on arrival at an airport on Sunday and was isolated and is being treated in hospital.

Japan announced on Monday that it will ban all foreign visitors from Tuesday as an emergency precaution against the variant.

  • Canada

Canada’s health minister says the country's first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two individuals who had recently travelled from Nigeria tested positive.

The country introduced tight travel restrictions on quarantine measures for southern African countries on Friday.

  • Australia

Australian authorities announced on Monday a third case of the variant in a South African man who flew from Johannesburg to the northern Australian city of Darwin.

Earlier, authorities said two travellers who arrived in Sydney from South Africa became the first in the country to test positive for the new variant.

The Australian government introduced travel restrictions from southern African countries with immediate effect on Saturday.

  • Reunion

A case has been recorded in the French territory of Reunion. The man travelled back to the Island from Mozambique two weeks ago, via a stopover in South Africa.

  • Botswana

Botswana's health minister Edwin Dikoloti said the country had detected 15 more cases of the Omicron variant, adding to the four confirmed cases it had earlier declared.

  • South Africa

In South Africa, where the Omicron strain was first detected, officials have said the new variant is now likely to be dominant.Although President Cyril Ramaphosa warned the country should expect a fourth wave of infections, he has not imposed any restrictions, opting only to call on more people to get vaccinated.

The variant was first detected in South Africa Credit: AP

What measures have countries implemented to stop its spread?

  • Travel bans

Many countries have slapped restrictions on various southern African countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, the European Union, Iran, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand and the United States, in response to warnings over the transmissibility of the new variant.

Nations like New Zealand and Japan pressed ahead with the travel restrictions despite not detecting any Omicron cases in their countries.

This goes against the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which has warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied.

“We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. He said the measure will take effect Tuesday.

Morocco had previously announced it has suspended all incoming flights for two weeks starting Monday.

The United States has said it plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries starting Monday and all arrivals will need proof of a negative test taken in the past 24 hours, regardless of vaccination status.President Biden has said the variant is a cause for "concern, not a cause for panic", while the country's top infectious diseases expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, said the variant will "inevitably" be detected in the US.

In Australia, arrivals from nine African countries are now required to quarantine in a hotel upon arrival.

South Africa's government responded angrily to the travel bans, which it said are “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.” The WHO sent out a statement saying it “stands with African nations” and noting that travel restrictions may play “a role in slightly reducing the spread of Covid but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods." It said if restrictions are put in place, they should be scientifically based and not intrusive.

  • Crackdowns on the unvaccinated

In a bid to stop the spread of Omicron, Germany has imposed strict new limitations on the unvaccinated, while in Greece, residents over 60 face fines of €100 euros a month if they fail to get vaccinated. About 17% of Greeks over 60 are unvaccinated.