As 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.
“That number of people seems like a very high number to have this happen,” Andrew Pekosz, an epidemiologist from Johns Hopkins University said. “Unless there’s really tremendous amounts of spread of this virus locally that was not detected.”
The Omicron variant is likely to be found in some of those 61 passengers who tested positive, Dutch public health officials announced on Saturday. The sequencing is still being performed by the Dutch agency for disease control and prevention. It was unclear how many passengers may have tested positive for the variant.
Those who tested positive for the coronavirus at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on Friday have been transferred to quarantine hotels. Those who tested negative could continue their journey or, if the Netherlands was their final destination, were told to quarantine at home.
The government is also telling thousands of people who have returned from southern Africa in the last few days to get tested, even if they don’t have symptoms.
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.
Isabella Grullón Paz contributed reporting.
As the world scrambled to prevent the spread of the new Omicron coronavirus variant that was first detected in southern Africa, Britain’s Health Security Agency confirmed on Saturday that two cases of the variant had been recorded in the country.
In a news conference on Saturday evening, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that to curb the spread of the variant, face masks would be required in stores and on public transportation, a rule the country had ended in July.
“As always, I must stress this, with a new variant there are many things we just cannot know at this early stage,” Mr. Johnson said.
“It does appear that Omicron spreads very rapidly and can be spread between people who are double vaccinated,” he added. Although the science around Omicron is still new, it is a “very extensive mutation” of previous configurations of the virus that could reduce vaccine effectiveness, Mr. Johnson said.
The cases are said to be linked to travel in southern Africa, the British government confirmed in a statement. Sajid Javid, Britain’s health secretary, described the new cases as a “stark reminder” that the pandemic was not yet over.
“Thanks to our world-class genomic sequencing, we have been made aware of two U.K. cases of the Omicron variant,” Mr. Javid said. “We have moved rapidly, and the individuals are self-isolating while contact tracing is ongoing.”
The country’s health agency is now carrying out targeted testing at several locations where infections could have been spread. Britain will also require travelers from abroad to get a PCR test within 48 hours of their arrival and require contacts of those who test positive with a suspected case of Omicron to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of vaccination status.
“We don’t yet exactly know how effective our vaccines will be against Omicron, but we have good reasons for believing they will provide at least some measure of protection,” he said.
In addition to the six countries in southern Africa that were added to Britain’s travel ban list on Friday to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant, four other countries — Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia — were also added. Being on the list requires travelers to quarantine in a government-approved hotel for 10 days.
The highly mutated new coronavirus variant known as Omicron is present in Germany, according to the health ministry for the state of Bavaria, which confirmed that two people infected with the new variant returned from a trip to South Africa this week.
The two travelers, a married couple who arrived on a flight on Tuesday, tested positive for the coronavirus, Klaus Holetschek, the Bavarian health minister, said in a public television interview on Friday. Hours later, his ministry confirmed that rapid sequencing had determined the couple were infected with the new variant.
In addition to those two, at least one person returning from South Africa was suspected of being of being infected with the Omicron variant in the state of Hesse, in central Germany.
The news prompted fresh concern at a time when Germany was already struggling to curb a brutal fourth wave of the pandemic that had produced tens of thousands of new daily infections — more than the country has had at any point in the pandemic. Hospitals across the country were already struggling to accommodate a surge in Covid patients.
“We have to break the Delta wave together now to be able to have some breathing space,” said Oliver T. Keppler, the virologist in charge of sequencing the new cases in Bavaria.
Germany was one of several European countries with suspected or confirmed cases of the new variant. Belgium reported a case on Friday, in a traveler returning from outside southern Africa, and Italy said on Saturday that it had confirmed a case in a traveler who had arrived from Mozambique. Health officials in the Czech Republic said on Saturday that they were examining a suspected case in a person who spent time in Namibia, according to the news agency Reuters.
The full sequencing on the suspected case of Omicron in Hesse will be completed early next week, said Sandra Ciesek, director of the Institute of Medical Virology at the University Hospital of Frankfurt.
The German government restricted travel from South Africa on Friday. As of midnight on Saturday, it will be designated a high-risk “variant region,” which means airlines are only allowed to transport German residents to Germany. All those who arrive have to quarantine for 14 days, even if they are vaccinated.
Elisabetta Povoledo contributed reporting.
JOHANNESBURG — As the United States and European countries close their borders over fears over the recently detected coronavirus variant, many South Africans say they feel as if they are being “punished” for alerting global health authorities.
Hours after South African scientists announced the existence of a new variant that they said displayed “a big jump in evolution,” Britain banned travelers from southern African nations. Other European nations and the United States quickly followed suit.
“I do apologize that people took a very radical decision,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform and the scientist who announced the new variant on Thursday.
Fresh from a virtual meeting with global health leaders, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser on the coronavirus, Mr. Oliveira told journalists he believed that international solidarity would be in favor of South Africa’s decision to publicize its findings.
The variant, named Omicron by the World Health Organization, was first detected in South Africa and in neighboring Botswana. The government in Botswana announced that four initial cases were all foreign diplomats who had since left, and that contact tracing was continuing.
Cases have also now been spotted in Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, in travelers sometimes returning from countries other than South Africa or Botswana, and suspected cases are being investigated in Germany and the Czech Republic.
The economies of South Africa and Botswana are reliant on tourists from the United States, Europe and China. South Africa’s tourism minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, described the temporary travel bans as “devastating.” Earlier this year, South African diplomats and scientists lobbied the British government to lift a previous ban that had already crippled tourism.
“We had been on the British red list and we worked our way out of it and with no notification we find ourselves back on the red list,” Ms. Sisulu told a national television station.
“Perhaps our scientists’ ability to trace some of these variants has been our biggest weakness,” Ms. Sisulu said. “We’re finding ourselves punished for the work that we do.”
Health officials in Africa suggested that increased screening at points of entry, or even longer quarantine periods, would have been a better alternative.
“This will just discourage different countries for sharing information which might be very important for global public health,” said Thierno Balde, incident manager for the Covid-19 emergency response for the World Health Organization’s regional office in Africa.
South Africa’s transparency was criticized by some local officials and businesspeople. Geordin Hill-Lewis, the mayor of Cape Town, said South African officials should have consulted their “travel partners” before making the announcement.
In January 2020, before global travel restrictions over the coronavirus pandemic, 93,315 international tourists arrived at Cape Town International airport, according to Statistics South Africa. By May 2021, that number had dropped to 4,821.
After the travel restrictions imposed after the highly transmissible Delta variant, Mr. Hill-Lewis said he believed that South African authorities should have expected the restrictions.
“That should have been foreseen and some heavy diplomacy put into action,” he said.
But Craig Lucke, a Cape Town-based guide who operates tours in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa called the countries’ actions “a total shocker.”
As Saturday dawned around the world, more countries were introducing restrictions on travelers from southern Africa over concerns about the emerging Omicron coronavirus variant.
Australia announced on Saturday that it had closed its borders to noncitizens from nine southern African countries — South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique — and that flights from there would be immediately suspended for 14 days. Australian citizens who arrive from those countries will need to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks, and anyone who has already arrived in the last two weeks must immediately isolate, officials said.
No cases of the Omicron variant have been recorded yet in Australia, although 20 people who recently arrived from South Africa are isolating in a quarantine camp, the country’s health minister, Greg Hunt, said at a news conference on Saturday. One person out of the 20 has tested positive for the virus and the case is being studied.
Thailand, Oman, Morocco and Sri Lanka announced similar restrictions on Saturday. Japan also said that it would tighten border controls for arrivals from three more countries — Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia — a day after announcing similar measures for South Africa and six other nations.
The World Trade Organization said it had indefinitely postponed its Ministerial Conference, which had been scheduled to start on Tuesday in Geneva, because newly imposed travel restrictions in Switzerland and other European countries would have prevented many ministers from attending. The conference is the W.T.O.’s highest rule-making body.
The government of Canada said late Friday that it would bar foreign nationals who had been in seven of the countries within two weeks of their planned arrival in Canada. Canadian citizens and permanent residents who have been in the region within two weeks of coming home can still return but will face enhanced testing and quarantine protocols, regardless of their vaccination status.
The Omicron variant had not been detected in Canada as of Friday night. The government described its new restrictions as a precautionary step and cited similar actions in Britain, the European Union and the United States.
Saudi Arabia has also suspended flights to and from seven southern African countries, the country’s official news agency reported on Friday. And Ciro Nogueira, the chief of staff to President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, said on Twitter that the country would halt its air traffic with six African countries on Monday.
Russia said in a statement published online on Friday that it would restrict entry starting Sunday for foreign citizens from eight southern African countries and in Hong Kong, which reported two cases of the variant on Friday. The restrictions also apply to foreign citizens who have traveled in those territories within the last 10 days.
“This variant has not yet been found on the territory of Russia,” the statement said. The restrictions will come into effect from midnight.
The W.H.O. has said that the Omicron variant carries a number of genetic mutations that may allow it to spread quickly, perhaps even among the vaccinated.
The speed at which travel restrictions have been imposed on southern African nations in recent days demonstrates how, two years into the pandemic, many policymakers would now rather risk overreacting to a new threat than underreacting.
“These new measures are being put in place out of an abundance of caution,” Jean-Yves Duclos, Canada’s health minister, said in a statement. “We will continue to do what is necessary to protect the health of Canadians.”
Todd Gregory contributed reporting.
Markets plunged on Friday, hope of taming the coronavirus dimmed and a new term entered the pandemic lexicon: Omicron.
The Covid-19 variant that emerged in South Africa was named after the 15th letter of the Greek alphabet.
The naming system, announced by the World Health Organization in May, makes public communication about variants easier and less confusing, the agency and experts said.
For example, the variant that emerged in India is not popularly known as B.1.617.2. Rather, it is known as Delta, the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet.
There are now seven “variants of interest” or “variants of concern,” and they each have a Greek letter, according to a W.H.O. tracking page.
Scientific experts at the World Health Organization warned on Friday that a new coronavirus variant discovered in southern Africa was a “variant of concern,” the most serious category the agency uses for such tracking.
The designation, announced after an emergency meeting of the health body, is reserved for dangerous variants that may spread quickly, cause severe disease or decrease the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments. The last coronavirus variant to receive this label was Delta, which took off this summer and now accounts for virtually all Covid cases in the United States.
The W.H.O. said the new version, named Omicron, carries a number of genetic mutations that may allow it to spread quickly, perhaps even among the vaccinated.
Independent scientists agreed that Omicron warranted urgent attention, but also pointed out that it would take more research to determine the extent of the threat. Although some variants of concern, like Delta, have lived up to initial worries, others have had a limited impact.
William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and other researchers said that vaccines will most likely protect against Omicron, but further studies are needed to determine how much of the shots’ effectiveness may be reduced.
As the coronavirus replicates inside people, new mutations constantly arise. Most provide the virus with no new advantage. When worrisome mutations do emerge, the World Health Organization uses Greek letters to name the variants. The first “variant of concern,” Alpha, appeared in Britain in late 2020, soon followed by Beta in South Africa.
Omicron first came to light in Botswana, where researchers at the Botswana Harvard H.I.V. Reference Laboratory in Gaborone sequenced the genes of coronaviruses from positive test samples. They found some samples sharing about 50 mutations not found in such a combination before. So far, six people have tested positive for Omicron in Botswana, according to an international database of variants.
Around the same time, researchers in South Africa stumbled across Omicron in a cluster of cases in the province of Gauteng. As of Friday, they have listed 58 Omicron samples on the variant database. But at a news conference on Thursday, Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation in South Africa, said that “close to two or three hundred” genetic sequences of Omicron cases would be released in the next few days.
President Biden will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other African countries to try to contain a troubling new variant of the coronavirus, senior administration officials said on Friday, though they said it would be impossible to prevent it from entering the United States.
Starting on Monday, the administration will prohibit travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi from coming to the United States, the officials said.
The travel ban will not apply to American citizens or lawful permanent residents, officials said. But they will need to show a negative coronavirus test before coming to the United States.
Mr. Biden made the decision after he was briefed by advisers including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who said in an interview Friday that the variant appeared to be spreading rapidly and that he and other health officials in the United States were consulting with South African scientists. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in a statement late Friday that no cases of the new variant had been identified in the United States.
The White House announced the decision after the World Health Organization said the newly detected version of the virus, labeled Omicron, was “a variant of concern,” a category for dangerous variants that may spread quickly, cause severe disease or decrease the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments.
“I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious,” Mr. Biden told reporters in Nantucket. “We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is a great concern and seems to spread rapidly.”
By imposing the travel restrictions, the administration will not stop the virus from coming to the United States. But it can give health officials and pharmaceutical companies time to determine whether the current vaccines work against the new variant — and if not, to create new vaccines that do.
“It’s going to buy us some time,” Dr. Fauci said. “It’s not going to be possible to keep this infection out of the country. The question is: Can you slow it down?”
Dr. Fauci said the new variant has about 30 mutations, and roughly 10 of them are on a part of the virus that is associated with transmissibility and immune protection. That suggests the virus may be more transmissible and may escape the current vaccines “to an extent yet to be determined.”
He said there had been some breakthrough infections among those who had recovered from the Delta variant, and among those who were vaccinated.
But at the same time, he said, scientists do not know the severity of the infections caused by the new variant. It is entirely possible that it spreads more quickly but causes less severe disease.
“You don’t want to say don’t worry, and you don’t want to say you’ve got to worry yourself sick, because we’re gathering information rapidly,” he said, adding, “Even though the numbers are still small, the doubling time is pretty rapid and the slope of the increase is really rather sharp.”
Biden administration officials said they were continuing to work with health officials in other countries to learn more about the variant.
“Restricting travel is going to slow its coming, not stop it from coming,” said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and an adviser to the president during his transition. “The fact that it’s coming here is inevitable. The environment in which it comes may not be inevitable. We can alter the environment.”
Mr. Biden said on Friday that the rise of the Omicron variant was another reason for vaccinated Americans to get boosters and unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated — a point Dr. Fauci echoed. And Mr. Biden said the development should push the international community to donate more vaccines to nations suffering from a lack of access or poor vaccination rates.
Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota who also advised Mr. Biden during his transition, said the administration had little choice on implementing the travel ban.
But Dr. Osterholm said it could take time before scientists know if the current vaccines are effective against the variant, and how transmissible it is. One way to figure that out is through laboratory studies, which will take several weeks, he said. Another way is to follow breakthrough cases in people who are already vaccinated, which could take months.
As global concern rose on Friday about a new coronavirus variant, Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency in New York, giving her the power to order hospitals to limit nonessential procedures to boost capacity in facilities.
The new variant, called Omicron, has officially been named a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization. The designation means that the variant has mutations that might make it more contagious or more virulent, or make vaccines and other preventive measures less effective — though none of those effects has yet been established.
The new measures in New York — which saw thousands of deaths from Covid-19 in 2020 — will take effect on Dec. 3, and are a far cry from the strict, society-wide restrictions which accompanied the early stages of the pandemic.
Still, the quick action by Gov. Hochul suggests the high level of concern not just about rising numbers of new cases across the state in recent weeks, but about the Omicron variant, which has already prompted several countries, including the United States, to restrict travelers from southern Africa.
“We continue to see warning signs of spikes this upcoming winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it’s coming,” Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, said in a statement, adding that vaccination remained a critical tool in fighting the virus.
Rates of positive tests in New York have crept up recently, even as vaccination rates have improved, with some counties recording positivity rates of more than 10 percent. In the two weeks before Thanksgiving Day, the daily average of new cases reported in New York rose 37 percent, to 6,666, according to a New York Times database. More than 56,000 people have died of the disease in New York.