A total of 61 people who arrived in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for the coronavirus and were in isolation on Saturday as the world anxiously sought to contain a new coronavirus variant.
Further tests are now underway on the travellers who arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to establish if any of them have the new variant, named omicron, that was first discovered in southern Africa.
The variant’s apparent swift spread among young people in South Africa has alarmed health professionals. Research is underway to determine whether the mutations found in omicron make it more infectious and transmissible.
Two planes arrived in the Netherlands from Johannesburg and Cape Town shortly after the Dutch government, along with many other nations around the world, on Friday imposed a ban on flights from southern African nations following discovery of the new omicron variant.
The Kennermerland local health authority, which is responsible for the testing and isolation operation, said in an update Saturday that the people who tested positive must quarantine for seven days if they have symptoms and five days if they are symptom-free.
The 539 travellers who tested negative were allowed to return home or continue their journeys to other countries. Under government regulations, those who live in the Netherlands and are allowed to return home must self-isolate for at least five days.
Canadian Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos on Friday announced five measures in response to concerns over the variant, also known as B.1.1.529:
- All foreign nationals who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini or Mozambique in the past 14 days will be barred from entering Canada.
- Those who have arrived in Canada in the past 14 days from those countries are being asked to quarantine immediately until they get a negative COVID-19 test result.
- Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return home from these countries, but will be required to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival and wait for results at a hotel. If the test is negative, they must quarantine for 14 days at home and must take another test on the eighth day of quarantine.
- Global Affairs Canada is issuing a travel advisory asking Canadians not to visit southern Africa for now.
- Canadians returning from that region will need to be tested in the last country they transited through before returning home (there are currently no direct flights between that region and Canada).
A slew of European nations are implementing similar policies, including Italy, which on Friday said it would ban entry into the country of anyone who has been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini in the past 14 days.
The U.K. announced it was suspending flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries, excluding Mozambique. British or Irish residents arriving from those countries after 4 a.m. local time Sunday will face a mandatory hotel quarantine, while those returning before that will be asked to isolate at home.
The U.S. plans to ban flights from eight southern African countries, adding Malawi to its list, starting Monday. The White House said restrictions will not apply to returning U.S. citizens or permanent residents, who will continue to be required to test negative before their travel.
The new variant has been detected in Botswana and among travellers in Hong Kong and Israel. Belgium became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant on Friday.
A minister in the German state of Hesse said on Saturday that the variant had possibly arrived in Germany via a traveller returning from South Africa. Czech health authorities said they were examining a suspected case of the variant in a person who spent time in Namibia.
At this time, the variant has not been detected in Canada, the Public Health Agency of Canada said on Friday.
“We know very little about this variant right now,” Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said at a briefing Friday.
The mutations that have been detected show the potential for greater transmissibility, she said, and could reduce natural immunity and even the immunity offered by vaccines.
“We are concerned about this new variant and closely monitoring the evolving situation,” she said.
What’s happening across Canada
What’s happening around the world
As of Saturday morning, more than 260.7 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus database. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.1 million.
In Europe, Britain’s main opposition Labour Party said on Saturday that the U.K. should cut the gap between the second dose of a COVID-19 vaccination and the booster jab from six to five months.
“This new (omicron) variant is a wake-up call,” said Alex Norris, Labour’s junior health spokesperson. “The pandemic is not over. We need to urgently bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay.”
In the Asia-Pacific region, Australia said on Saturday that it would ban non-citizens who have been in nine southern African countries from entering and require supervised 14-day quarantines for Australian citizens and their dependents returning from there.
Australia said the countries on its list for restrictions include South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique.
In Africa, the women’s cricket World Cup qualifying tournament in Zimbabwe has been cancelled after the discovery of the omicron, which has prompted travel restrictions, the sport’s governing body (ICC) said on Saturday.
The ICC took the decision after Saturday’s game between the West Indies and Sri Lanka was called off when a member of the Sri Lankan support staff tested positive for COVID-19.
In Asia, Japan will introduce restrictions for travellers from the southern African nations of Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia, requiring a 10-day quarantine for any entrants, in an effort to stop the spread of the newly detected coronavirus variant, the country’s Foreign Ministry said on Saturday.
The new rules will take effect from midnight on Saturday and come a day after Japan tightened border controls for those arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho.