Egypt reports first Omicron cases as WHO warns over variant's rapid global spread

New infections come during key period for Egypt's recovering tourism sector

Passengers at Sadat metro station, Cairo, Egypt. The country has recently stepped up measures to control the spread of Covid-19. EPA
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Egypt on Saturday said it had detected its first cases of the coronavirus Omicron variant, after three people tested positive on their return to the country.

The Health Ministry did not specify where the Egyptian travellers had arrived from, but said one had mild symptoms and the other two had none.

These Omicron infections come at the height of the economically vital tourist season.

The country's air and tourism sectors, which suffered under global coronavirus lockdowns for the past two years, had just started to recover and were counting on end-of-year holiday visits.

Tourism represents about a tenth of the GDP of Egypt, where a third of the population lives below the poverty line.

Omicron is the biggest threat to global public health, the G7 group of economically developed democracies said this week.

Scientists remain uncertain how dangerous the Omicron variant is, but early data suggests it can be more resistant to vaccines and is more transmissible than the Delta variant.

On December 1, Egypt stepped up measures to control the spread of the virus.

It has barred officials and students not vaccinated against Covid-19 from government offices and universities, unless they show a negative PCR test.

The country has officially recorded 373,509 coronavirus cases, with 21,277 deaths.

Egypt's vaccination campaign, after initially lagging, has accelerated considerably in recent months, with mobile units deployed.

Around 40 per cent of Egypt's population of more than 102 million have now received at least one dose of a vaccine, according to the government. However, only 14 million Egyptians have had two doses.

Mask-wearing – which health experts consider a vital measure against coronavirus spread – is poorly respected in Cairo, a tightly packed city of more than 20 million inhabitants.

Earlier on Saturday, the World Health Organisation said Omicron has been reported in 89 countries and the number of cases is doubling every 1.5 to 3 days in some areas.

Omicron is spreading rapidly even in countries with high levels of population immunity, but it is unclear if this is due to the virus's ability to evade immunity, its inherent increased transmissibility or a combination of both, the WHO said.

The agency designated Omicron a variant of concern on November 26, soon after it was first detected, and much is still not known about it, including the severity of the illness it causes.

“There are still limited data on the clinical severity of Omicron,” the WHO said. “More data are needed to understand the severity profile and how severity is impacted by vaccination and pre-existing immunity.”

“There are still limited available data, and no peer-reviewed evidence, on vaccine efficacy or effectiveness to date for Omicron,” it added.

The WHO warned that with cases rising so rapidly, hospitals could be overwhelmed in some places.

“Hospitalisations in the UK and South Africa continue to rise, and given rapidly increasing case counts, it is possible that many healthcare systems may become quickly overwhelmed.”

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Updated: December 18, 2021, 12:44 PM