Omicron Variant Present in Europe a Week Ago: Dutch Officials

Carolyn Crist

November 30, 2021

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The Omicron variant was already circulating in Europe before flights were banned last week and before scientists in South Africa reported it to the World Health Organization, Dutch health officials say.

Two people who tested positive for COVID-19 in the Netherlands more than a week ago were infected with the Omicron variant, the officials announced in a statement on Tuesday.

"We have found the Omicron coronavirus variant in two test samples that were taken on Nov. 19 and Nov. 23," the Dutch health ministry told The New York Times. "It is not yet clear whether these people had also visited southern Africa."

The two samples were taken by municipal health services at public testing sites, the health ministry said. They've now begun contact tracing in those areas and will examine older samples that recently tested positive.

The timing is significant because it suggests the Omicron variant was already in the country before the WHO labeled it a "variant of concern" and before 14 cases were identified on two flights arriving in Amsterdam from South Africa on Friday, the newspaper reported.

Lab tests identified several strains of the Omicron variant among the passengers on those flights, Dutch officials said in the announcement.

"This means that the people were very probably infected independently from each other, from different sources and in different locations," the health ministry said.

Scientists still aren't sure where or when the Omicron variant originated, the health ministry said. So far, the first known sample of the variant was collected on Nov. 9 in South Africa.

On Tuesday, the WHO cautioned against travel bans and "blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based," and it said countries that report new variants -- as Botswana and South Africa did with the Omicron variant -- should not be penalized.

"We still have more questions than answers about the effect of Omicron on transmission, severity of disease, and the effectiveness of tests, therapeutics, and vaccines," Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, PhD, the director-general of the WHO, said during a briefing on the Omicron variant.

"The global response must be calm, coordinate, and coherent," he said. "At the same time, we must not forget that we are already dealing with a highly transmissible, dangerous variant -- the Delta variant, which accounts for almost all cases globally."

Sources

The New York Times: "Omicron was already present in Europe days before flights were banned, Dutch officials say."

Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment: "Omicron variant found in two previous test samples."

World Health Organization: "WHO Director-General's opening remarks at the Member State Information Session on the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2

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