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The omicron coronavirus variant was already in the Netherlands a week before South Africa reported the new variant to the World Health Organization, according to a Dutch health agency.
The variant was recently identified in further testing of samples taken on November 19 and 23, the National Institute of Public Health and Environment, or RIVM, said on Tuesday.
The revelations about the variant’s existence in Europe before it was reported in Africa add a new twist to questions about the variant’s origin and provenance – and whether travel bans in South Africa and its neighbors are an appropriate response to the variant.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has said his country is being punished for detecting the variant and reporting it to global health authorities.
“You are not trying to contain a virus by imposing bans in an unscientific and indiscriminate way”, Ramaphosa said Tuesday, adding that measures such as testing all travelers are the best tools to fight the pandemic.
South African officials sounded the alarm bells about the heavily mutated variant, B.1.1.529, on November 24. Two days later, the WHO classified it as a variant of concern and dubbed it omicron.
The World Health Agency says the variant poses a “very high” risk because its mutations could help it spread more easily – and possibly infect people who might otherwise be considered immune to the previous variants.
Anomalies prompted retesting of old samples; links with southern Africa unclear
The Netherlands had previously reported more than a dozen cases of omicron’s COVID-19, detected in tests carried out at an Amsterdam airport on November 26, when 624 people arrived in the country from Africa from South.
Dutch authorities have examined the older samples after the first PCR tests revealed abnormalities in the coronavirus spike protein – the omicron variant has 26 to 32 mutations in this area alone, according to the WHO.
The samples were taken from a municipal public health service testing site, RIVM said, adding: “It is not yet clear whether these people have also visited southern Africa.”
The rapid spread of omicron has triggered travel restrictions
As of Monday evening, 33 cases of omicron had been confirmed in Europe, in eight countries: the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Italy and Portugal, according to the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control. It has also been found in other places, from Hong Kong to Israel.
The omicron variant has triggered a wave of new travel restrictions targeting South Africa and other countries in southern Africa. Almost immediately, new bans were announced or proposed by the EU, the US and Canada, as well as Japan, Russia and the UK
Ramaphosa insists that these bans be lifted, saying: “It’s unfair, it’s discriminatory against us.
Health experts have long questioned the effectiveness of such bans – and in the case of the coronavirus, many believe the omicron variant has already spread too quickly to be contained in just one part of the world.
The place where the omicron originally emerged is still unknown
Days after South Africa informed the WHO of the new variant, Botswana said its genomic surveillance for COVID-19 found four cases of omicron, among foreign diplomats who entered the country on November 7.
“It is not known exactly where the variant actually emerged,” as the health news site STAT reports. “It could be that South Africa and Botswana saw it early on because they have strong genetic sequencing networks.”
All four people tested positive on November 11, as they prepared to leave Botswana; their samples were retested after the alarm was raised about the variant.
Botswana has not identified the diplomats or indicated where they went. The country recently said it found 15 more cases, the majority of them also linked to international travel.