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Germany and Czech Republic report first omicron cases as variant spreads in Europe

The new omicron variant of Covid-19 may have arrived in Germany and the Czech Republic, as large parts of the world brought in measures to stop its spread from the region where it was first detected.

Officials in the neighbouring central European countries suspect cases of the new variant in passengers from southern Africa.

Omicron has been designated as a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation. Scientists fear it is highly transmissible and could be more resistant to vaccines.

A minister in the German state of Hesse said that several “omicron-typical mutations” had been found in a traveller returning from South Africa to Frankfurt airport, one of Europe’s busiest.

He added that a full sequencing of the variant was being carried out and that the person was isolating, and he urged anyone who had travelled from South Africa in the last few weeks to limit contacts and get tested.

In the Czech Republic, health authorities are examining a suspected case of omicron in a person who has returned from Namibia.

Elsewhere, the UK detected two cases of omicron, which are linked and have been traced to southern Africa, while Dutch health officials were trying to establish if the omicron variant was behind 61 Covid cases found in people who arrived in the Netherlands from South Africa on Friday.

Europe recorded its first case in Belgium, and cases have also been found in Botswana, South Africa, Israel and Hong Kong.

Omicron has emerged at a time when many European countries are taking measures against surging infection rates.

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Germany has been reporting more than twice as many new daily cases as at this time last month, and the Czech Republic more than four times as many.

Both countries have introduced tighter restrictions, with Czech authorities declaring a 30-day state of emergency, which includes curfews on hospitality and outdoor markets. Several other European Union countries have brought in restrictions.

The EU has imposed a bloc-wide travel ban on southern Africa. The EU executive advised caution until the threat posed by the variant could be understood.

The UK has also imposed a travel ban on the region. A host of countries, including Australia, Brazil, Canada, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the US, followed on Saturday.

The swift spread of the new variant among young people in South Africa has alarmed health professionals, even though there was no immediate indication as to whether it causes more severe illness.

A number of pharmaceutical firms, including AstraZeneca, Moderna, Novavax and Pfizer, have said they have plans in place to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of the omicron variant.


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