Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron
Experts will need two weeks to know if the current Covid-19 vaccines are effective against the Omicron variant, the head of the EU’s medical watchdog said.
Emer Cooke said that if a new shot is required, it will take three to four months to receive regulatory approval.
The omicron variant, first reported in southern Africa, has seen many countries tighten entry restrictions amid fears that it is highly transmissible and potentially resistant to the catalogue of vaccines on offer.
Dutch health authorities revealed today the Omicron variant of the coronavirus was already in the Netherlands when South Africa alerted the World Health Organisation (WHO) about it last week.
The announcement adds to fear and confusion over the new version of the coronavirus in a world hoping it had left the worst of the pandemic behind.
The RIVM health institute said it found Omicron in samples dating from November 19 and 23.
Those findings predate the positive cases found among passengers who came from South Africa last Friday and were tested at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport. The WHO said South Africa first reported the Omicron variant to the UN agency on November 24.
It remains unclear where or when the variant first emerged — but that has not stopped wary nations from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from southern Africa.
Addressing MEPs, Ms Cooke said it was important to assess “the cross-neutralisation” of the vaccines to see if they do provide protection against the new variant.
“That’s a process that takes about two weeks,” said the head of the European Medicines Agency.
Ms Cooke said that, for now, it was crucial “we continue to give the message that the current vaccines provide protection” and those eligible for booster shots come forward.
With other mutations such as the delta variant, the vaccines have been shown to provide protection, though the efficacy is reduced.
“A lot of this work will have to go on at the company level at this stage, but I want to assure you that we’re working with the companies and with other regulators to make sure that we’re as prepared and ready as possible,” Ms Cooke said. “Were there a need to change the vaccines, we could be in a position to have those approved within three to four months.”
Japan and France also confirmed their first cases of the new variant on Tuesday as countries around the world scrambled to close their doors or find ways to limit its spread while scientists study how damaging it might be.
The WHO has warned that the global risk from the Omicron variant is “very high” based on early evidence, saying it could lead to surges with “severe consequences”.
French authorities confirmed the first case of the Omicron variant in the French island territory of Reunion in the Indian Ocean.
Patrick Mavingui, a microbiologist at the island’s research clinic for infectious diseases, said the person who has tested positive for the new variant is a 53-year-old man who had travelled to Mozambique and stopped in South Africa before returning to Reunion.
The man was placed in quarantine. He has “muscle pain and fatigue”, Mr Mavingui said, according to public television station Reunion 1ere.
A day after banning all foreign visitors as an emergency precaution against the variant, Japan confirmed its first case on Tuesday, in a visitor who had travelled from Namibia.
A government spokesman said the patient, a man in his 30s, tested positive upon arrival at Narita airport on Sunday and was isolated. He is being treated in hospital.
Cambodia barred entry to travellers from 10 African countries, citing the threat from the Omicron variant. The move came just two weeks after Cambodia reopened its borders to fully vaccinated travellers.
The new version was identified days ago by researchers in South Africa, but the Dutch case and similar ones suggest that it had been circulating for a number of days before that.
Authorities in the eastern German city of Leipzig said on Tuesday they had confirmed an infection with the Omicron variant in a 39-year-old man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who had been, news agency dpa reported.
Leipzig is in the eastern state of Saxony, which currently has Germany’s highest overall coronavirus infection rates.
The WHO said there are “considerable uncertainties” about the Omicron variant. But it said preliminary evidence raises the possibility that the variant has mutations that could help it both evade an immune-system response and boost its ability to spread from person to person.
The WHO stressed that while scientists are seeking evidence to better understand this variant, countries should accelerate vaccinations as quickly as possible.
Despite the global worry, doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms so far. But they warn that observations of the variant are at an early stage.
Also, most of the new cases are in people in their 20s and 30s, who generally do not get as sick from Covid-19 as older patients.