As Potential Omicron Variant Cases Emerge, an International Scramble to Shut It Out

As yet more countries placed travel bans on southern Africa early Saturday for fear of a new and possibly more dangerous variant of the coronavirus, the passengers on two flights from South Africa found themselves caught in a pandemic nightmare.

After about 30 hours squeezed together in the planes, crammed buses and then in waiting rooms, 61 of the more than 500 passengers on those flights had tested positive and been quarantined. They were being checked for Omicron, named by the World Health Organization just on Friday as a “variant of concern,” its most serious category.

Everyone else, according to Stephanie Nolen, The New York Times’s global health reporter, who was on one of the planes, “has scattered to the world.”

The chaos in Amsterdam seemed emblematic of the varied, and often scattershot, responses to the virus across the world, with masking rules, national testing requirements and vaccine mandates differing from country to country and continent to continent. (KLM, the airline operating the flights, said that only some passengers had to show proof of a recent negative test, depending on vaccination status and the requirements of their final destination.)

Such gaps could open avenues for contagion, especially for a potentially threatening new variant.

There is still relatively little known about Omicron. It has mutations that scientists fear could make it more infectious and less susceptible to vaccines — though neither of these effects is yet to be established.

On Saturday, fear of Omicron arrived nonetheless, as officials in Britain reported two cases of the variant, and Germany and the Czech Republic investigated suspected cases.

The numbers of confirmed cases outside southern Africa remain small, but there are worries the virus could have spread more widely before scientists there discovered it.

“It would be irresponsible” not to be worried about the new variant, Roberto Speranza, the health minister of Italy, the first European Union nation to block flights from southern Africa, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper on Saturday. “It’s a new and worrying element.”

After the initial shock of the discovery of a case of the Omicron variant in Europe on Friday in Belgium, European leaders, already struggling with a surge in cases that has made it once again the epicenter of the pandemic, tried to strike a balance between increasing caution and avoiding panic. But the virus would not cooperate.

On Friday evening, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, said on Twitter that she held “fruitful” conversations with the pharmaceutical companies and that they “explained their efforts to quickly and thoroughly understand the Omicron variant and adjust our strategies accordingly. Time is of the essence.”

The union acted with rare unity in response to the threat posed by the new variant, binding together to restrict travel to and from southern Africa.

Vivian Loonela, a spokeswoman for the commission, said Saturday that “member states agreed to introduce rapidly restrictions on all travel into the E.U. from seven countries in the southern Africa region — Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe.”

Mr. Speranza, Italy’s health minister, told Corriere della Sera that he considered it wise “to activate the emergency brake,” adding, the “European coordination on these decisions is fundamental.”

One of Mr. Speranza’s main criticisms during the first wave of the virus back in 2020 was that Italy was left alone, and that France and Britain and other countries did not act to ban flights from China as Italy did in January of that year.

He said the strategy of the government, to promote vaccinations through a strict health pass that was required to work and participate in much of society, would not change. The government’s message remained the same, vaccines — and now boosters — were the only way out of the pandemic.

Claire Moses contributed reporting.

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