Covid live: suspected German and Czech Omicron cases; UK expert says pandemic ‘reboot’ unlikely

LIVE – Updated at 13:41

© Photograph: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Passengers arrive at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel as nations race to impose travel bans on south African nations in light of the new Covid-19 variant.

61 travellers from South Africa test positive for Covid in Netherlands; first European case of B.1.1.529 variant identified in Belgium; travel bans target countries across southern Africa.

A summary of today’s developments

  • The first suspected case of the Omicron Covid variant in the Czech Republic is under investigation. Prime minister Andrej Babiš said the suspected infection was a woman who stayed in Namibia, and then flew home via South Africa and Dubai.
  • In Germany, a minister in the state of Hesse said the Omicron variant, known officially as B.1.1.529, had probably arrived in a traveller returning from South Africa. The country’s top health officials have raised the prospect of a national lockdown amid rapidly rising cases and hospitalisations.
  • Dozens of people who arrived in the Netherlands on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for Covid. Dutch authorities are scrambling to see if 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for Covid-19 have the new B.1.1.529 variant.
  • There have been 77 fully confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in South Africa, four cases in Botswana and one in Hong Kong. Cases have also been reported in Israel and Belgium, although it is possible the variant has spread further.
  • The Omicron variant is unlikely to “reboot” the pandemic in a population that has been widely vaccinated, according to Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group.
  • South Africa has complained it is being “punished” for detecting the Omicron variant, as countries around the world rushed to impose travel bans from southern African countries.
  • Travel bans from certain African countries have been introduced by the UK, US, EU, Australia, Brazil, Turkey, Canada, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Oman and Thailand, among others.
  • Concerns over the variant triggered a sharp drop in global stock markets and oil prices
  • BioNTech, the company that developed the Pfizer jab, has said it could manufacture and distribute an updated version of its vaccine within 100 days if the new Covid variant is found to evade existing immunity.


Hi, it’s Léonie Chao-Fong again. South Africa has complained it is being “punished” for detecting the Omicron variant.

The foreign ministry made the statement as countries around the world rushed to impose travel bans from southern African countries.

“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said.

The bans on flights was said to be “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker”.


13:26 Clea Skopeliti

Members of the UK’s Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) have expressed concern at the emergence of the Omicron variant when Covid cases in the UK are high and people are socialising indoors.

Dr Zubaida Haque called on the government to take “early and preventative action now”, saying “high cases and no mitigations means spread of new variant is faster”.

Meanwhile, Prof Susan Michie and Dr Kit Yates have thrown their weight behind Prof Stephen Reicher “debunking the idea of behavioural fatigue”.

“The evidence is that people respond to clear leadership from trusted sources,” Michie said.

Advocating for a policy of elimination, Dr Deepti Gurdasani stressed that “with every shift in the virus we risk dealing with a shift in the pandemic”.

“Progressive coordinated and supported global elimination was the only way to really deal with this threat. And with every new variant, it gets harder to do this,” she said.

Gurdasani said a lack of mandatory hotel quarantine in the UK means “spread can happen in households and onward” and called for comprehensive mandatory border quarantines from all regions, mask mandates, mitigations in schools and limits on large gatherings. She also urged the booster programme and vaccine drive for children to be accelerated.


Authorities in the Czech Republic reported the first suspected case of the Omicron variant has been identified in a passenger who arrived from Africa.

The prime minister, Andrej Babiš, said the suspected infection was a woman who stayed in Namibia, and then flew home via South Africa and Dubai.

This is Harry Taylor, bringing you Covid news for the next hour.


A useful thread from Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, on what factors to look out for in terms of learning about the Omicron variant.

Among the key points to look for are the variant’s epidemiology, its clinical impact and how it fares under existing public health measures. Farrar adds:

New variants are inevitable the virus remains highly plastic still evolving and will continue to do so. New variants are not a reason to stop doing what we know works.

New variants are a reminder if we needed it that the pandemic is far from over, inequity is what will extend the pandemic. We do need to do inclusive public health better including urgent equitable access to vaccines and all the tools needed stop pandemic.


11:42 Denis Campbell

The unequal sharing of Covid vaccines globally is likely to lead to more variants like Omicron emerging, the international affairs thinktank Chatham House is warning.

“The emergence of a new Covid-19 variant with all its myriad mutations – on this occasion from South Africa – is not unexpected,” said Dr Osman Dar, the project director of Chatham House’s One Health Project and a specialist in public health and the control of communicable diseases.

What it highlights are the continuing and fundamental risks to everyone associated with not seriously addressing the inequalities still at play globally in the fight against disease and poor health.

Mutations will continue to surface, as will in all likelihood other infectious viruses with pandemic potential. This latest variant – rapidly detected thanks to South Africa’s relatively advanced genomic sequencing capability and willingness to engage with international partners and collaborating agencies – has for South Africa resulted in a series of travel bans restricting their citizens and impediments to international trade.

African states will pay the price of travel bans which are implemented to try to contain the spread of Omicron, while drug companies will benefit from the search for modified vaccines, he added.

Movement restrictions, including international travel bans do clearly slow and limit the spread of infectious disease, and as is the case is with the current pandemic, allow countries the time and breathing space to prepare medical countermeasures as well as adapt strategies to control local outbreaks.

While for drug and vaccine manufacturers, largely based in the global north, it represents the firing of a start-gun in the next race for market share and profit as they test whether their currently licensed IP-protected vaccines will be effective and whether or not a new, modified vaccine is necessary.

So in effect, a low/middle income nation – along with the continent it sits in – is economically penalised, socially ostracised and socio-politically stigmatised for demonstrating global solidarity and doing the right thing through their timely reporting and sharing of the variant’s genetic data. Meanwhile, a small group of hugely wealthy pharmaceutical companies find new opportunities to generate exorbitant profits as fear starts to once again grip politicians and the wider public.

What’s necessary, therefore, to limit the negative socioeconomic impacts of these restrictive measures on trade and travel, is to have a sufficiently resourced global regime in place. This should support countries reporting new variants through the significant financial and social hardships that then ensue – a disaster or pandemic fund specifically engineered around the impacts of trade and travel restrictions.


Hello! It’s Léonie Chao-Fong here, taking over the live blog from Aamna Mohdin. Here’s a bit more on the 61 passengers onboard the two flights from South Africa to Amsterdam who tested positive for Covid-19.

Dutch health authorities said the positive cases were being quarantined in a hotel near Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport.

“We now know that 61 of the results were positive and 531 negative,” the Dutch health authority (GGD) said in a statement.

“The positive test results will be examined as soon as possible to determine whether this concerns the new worrisome variant, which has since been given the name Omicron variant.”

Those who tested positive will be required to stay in hotel quarantine for seven days if they show symptoms and for five days if they do not. Those who test negative are expected to isolate at home.

The Dutch government had banned all air travel from South Africa early on Friday because of concerns about the Omicron variant. Testing is required before flights.

Around 600 passengers arrived at Schiphol on the two KLM flights on Friday and then faced hours of delays and testing.

The passengers from the two aircraft, which landed shortly after each other, were kept separate from other people at the airport, De Telegraaf reports. One aircraft came from Cape Town and landed at Schiphol around 10.30 am on Friday. The other flight, from Johannesburg, arrived at around 11am.

Some people complained about the lack of information from airport officials and said it took seven hours before they were given anything to eat or drink.

Lorraine Blaauw, who runs a support group for South African families in the Netherlands, told she had been contacted by several people onboard the two flights.

“It was chaos,” she said. “No one knew what was going on. There was no food, no milk for the babies. KLM provided 30 blankets for 600 people. The KLM crew just went home.”

The Kennemerland health board, which is responsible for testing at the airport, said it understood the frustration under passengers about the situation. “People who have just had a long journey … were confronted with a situation we have never had to deal with before,” the health board said in a statement.


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Suspected Omicron case found in Germany, says state minister

A German state minister has warned that the Omicron variant has “very likely already arrived” in Germany, as mutations typical of the variant were detected in a traveller returning from South Africa.

“Last night several Omicron-typical mutations were found in a traveller returning from South Africa,” tweeted Kai Klose, the minister of state for social affairs and integration in the western German state of Hesse.

The full sequencing of the variant hasn’t yet been carried out, but he said health authorities had a “high level of suspicion” that the person has contracted the variant. The traveller has been isolated at home.

If confirmed, it would be the first case of Omicron in Germany.

No further details were given about the passenger or which airport the infected person arrived at. Frankfurt international airport, Germany’s busiest airport, is located in the state of Hesse.

“If you have returned from southern Africa in the last week, limit your contacts and get tested,” Klose warned.

Sixty-one travellers from South Africa in Netherlands test positive for Covid

Dutch health authorities said that 61 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for Covid-19, Reuters reports.

Authorities are conducting further testing to see if any of the infections are with the recently discovered Omicron coronavirus variant.

Around 600 passengers arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on the two KLM flights on Friday and then faced hours of delays and testing due to concerns over the new virus variant.

The Dutch health ministry said early on Saturday 61 tests had come back positive.

“Travellers with a positive test result will be placed in isolation at a hotel at or near Schiphol,” health authorities said in a statement. “Of the positive test results, we are researching as quickly as possible whether they are the new variant of concern, now named ‘Omicron’.”

The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday. The health minister, Hugo de Jonge, determined that passengers already en route to the Netherlands would have to undergo testing and quarantine upon arrival.


The UK should cut the gap between the second dose of a Covid-19 vaccination and the booster jab from six to five months, the Labour party said on Saturday, Reuters reports.

As the new Omicron variant sparked concern around the world, Alex Norris, Labour’s junior health spokesperson, said:

This new variant is a wake-up call.

The pandemic is not over. We need to urgently bolster our defences to keep the virus at bay.

Yesterday, Labour called on ministers to act quickly to “get a grip” of the issues before Omicron had a chance to take hold.

Related: Omicron variant spreads to Europe as UK announces countermeasures

Omicron variant unlikely to lead to ‘reboot of pandemic’ – director of Oxford Vaccine Group

The director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which developed the AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed cautious optimism that existing vaccines could be effective at preventing serious disease from the Omicron variant and said it is unlikely to result in a reboot of the pandemic.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Prof Sir Andrew Pollard said:

If you look at where most of the mutations are, they are similar to regions of the spike protein that have been seen with other variants so far and that tells you that despite mutations existing in other variants, the vaccines have continued to prevent very severe disease as we’ve moved through Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.

At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against this variant for severe disease but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed.

But it is extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen

Pollard added that it was still too early from the data in South Africa to make any decisive conclusions of the impact the Omicron variant will have.

He was also hopeful that a new vaccine, if needed, could be developed rapidly. He said:

The processes of how one goes about developing a new vaccine are increasingly well oiled.

So if it’s needed that is something that could be moved very rapidly.


Many passengers on the two flights that arrived from South Africa to the Netherlands last night did not wear face coverings, New York Times reporter Stephanie Nolen says.

Nolen, who was on one plane, said many passengers did not follow the health guidelines despite a mask mandate by Dutch airline KLM, which operated both flights.

We now know that dozens of those passengers tested positive for Covid, although authorities have yet to confirm the presence of the Omicron variant.

Passengers were stuck on the airport tarmac for about four hours before being sent to be swabbed, tweeted Nolen, who later said she tested negative.

“… still probably 30% of ppl are wearing no mask or only over mouth. Dutch authorities not enforcing. We’re just all in this unventilated room at hour 12, breathing on each other,” she added.

“After all that time with maskless yellers in an unventilated space – we shall see what the next days bring.”

South Africa’s hospitals see rise in younger Covid patients

The number of confirmed Omicron Covid cases in South Africa is still relatively low, with 2,828 new confirmed cases recorded on Friday, but its speed in infecting young people in the country has alarmed health professionals, the Associated Press reports.

“We’re seeing a marked change in the demographic profile of patients with Covid-19,” Rudo Mathivha, head of the intensive care unit at Soweto’s Baragwanath hospital, told an online press briefing.

“Young people, in their 20s to just over their late 30s, are coming in with moderate to severe disease, some needing intensive care. About 65% are not vaccinated and most of the rest are only half-vaccinated,” said Mathivha.

“I’m worried that as the numbers go up, the public health care facilities will become overwhelmed.”

She said urgent preparations are needed to enable public hospitals to cope with a potential large influx of patients needing intensive care.

Diagnostic tests so far indicate the Omicron variant may be responsible for as many as 90% of the new cases, according to South Africa’s health officials.

Early studies show that it has a reproduction rate of 2 — meaning that every person infected by it is likely to spread it to two other people.


Sri Lanka is the latest country to ban travellers from six southern African countries on Saturday over concerns about the new Omicron Covid variant.

From Monday, travellers will not be allowed into the country from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho and Eswatini, a statement from the director general of health services said, local publication the Deccan Herald reports.

Travellers who arrived from these six countries over the past two days will have to undergo mandatory 14 days quarantine.


Morning, I’m Aamna Mohdin and I’ll be helming the blog for the next few hours. If you want to get in touch, you can email me ([email protected]) or message me on Twitter (@aamnamohdin)


As Europe braces for a possible outbreak of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, here is a quick visual refresh of where the continent stands in its fight against the coronavirus.

This updated map indicates incidence rates across Europe.


Thailand is now the latest country to ban entry of people travelling from eight African countries it designated as high-risk for the new B 1.1.529 Covid-19 variant, a senior health official said.

Starting in December, travel from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, will be prohibited, the official told a news conference, as reported by Reuters.


Hi everyone, it’s Samantha Lock here, ready to take you through all the new Covid developments this weekend.

It’s been a busy past 24 hours on the Covid front with nations racing to close borders and reimpose restrictions after a new Covid variant was detected last week.

Today, the World Health Organization named the variant “omicron” and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern.

Belgium detected Europe’s first confirmed case of the new variant on Friday as the US, the UK, Australia, Canada and multiple European nations imposed travel bans on south African nations.

Let’s dive right back in with a quick recap of all the key developments you may have missed from the past few hours.

  • The US and Canada introduced new travel restrictions in response to the Omicron variant.
  • EU members also agreed to restrict travel from seven African countries.
  • The first European case of B.1.1.529 variant has been identified in Belgium.
  • The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said no cases of the new Covid-19 Omicron variant detected in South Africa have so far been identified in the United States to date.
  • New York governor Kathy Hochul issued a Covid-19 “disaster emergency” declaration on Friday, citing increasing rates of infections and hospitalisations. An order from the governor said the state was experiencing Covid-19 transmission “not seen since April 2020” and that hospital admissions has been increasing over the past month to over 300 a day.
  • The UK reported a further 50,091 Covid cases and 160 deaths.
  • India reported its lowest daily Covid case rise in 541 days, according to Union Health Ministry data updated today. The single-day rise of 8,318 new Covid infections and 465 deaths saw active cases decline to 1,07,019 – the lowest seen since March 2020.
  • South Korea’s Covid deaths hit record high with new curbs expected. The country reported 4,068 new Covid-19 cases and 52 new deatgs. Critically ill patients hit an all-time high of 634, up 17 from the previous day, according to the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA).
  • India will resume scheduled international flights from 15 December with a limited service to 14 nations, the Civil Aviation Ministry said.
  • Australia confirmed it will close its borders to anyone who has been in southern Africa, and is not an Australian citizen. Australian citizens, residents and their dependents arriving from these countries will need to go into immediate supervised quarantine for 14 days.
  • Brazil will shut its borders to travellers arriving from six southern African countries, chief of staff to president Jair Bolsonaro said.
  • Germany reports an additional 67,125 Covid cases and 303 deaths, according to data from the Robert Koch Institute.
  • Germany’s top health officials have raised the prospect of a national lockdown amid rapidly rising coronavirus cases and a dramatic increase in the number of patients in intensive care.
  • The Netherlands will be “effectively closed from 5pm to 5am” according to remarks by caretaker prime minister Mark Rutte, announcing new Covid restrictions from Sunday.
  • Dozens of people are likely to have tested positive for the virus within the 600 passengers who landed at Schiphol airport in the Netherlands from South Africa on Friday.
  • The European Centres for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has classified Omicron, B.1.1.529, a “variant of concern”, warning the risk is “high to very high”.
  • Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Morocco have introduced varying bans on travellers from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini according to AFP. Egypt has suspended direct flights to and from South Africa. Iran said it will ban foreign travellers from six countries, including South Africa.
  • Canada introduced new border measures and ‘rigorous monitoring’, banning foreign travellers from seven African countries.
  • Stocks in the US followed those in Asia and Europe by falling sharply on Friday in the wake of concerns about the new Covid variant.

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