BARCELONA — On Friday, hours after the World Health Organization announced the appearance of a new, heavily mutated coronavirus variant in southern Africa, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen urged the 27 countries of the European Union to “activate the emergency brake” and block flights from South Africa and seven nearby countries where the variant of concern, soon named Omicron, had been detected.
By then, however, Omicron had already arrived on the European continent, appearing at least as early as Nov. 19 in the Netherlands. And in the past few days it’s been showing up everywhere from the United Kingdom to the Czech Republic, although most of the 79 cases reported early Dec. 2 by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (which does not oversee the U.K.) appeared to be travelers coming in from Africa.
Hover mouse over map for case numbers
In fact, on Wednesday, when the WHO announced that the variant had been detected in 23 countries — a number that soon rose to 24 when a case was discovered in California — 13 of those countries were in Europe, among them Belgium, Sweden, Germany, Portugal and Spain. By Thursday afternoon, another four EU countries had reported cases, including Norway, where Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre told reporters that 50 fully vaccinated people had tested positive for Omicron after being infected at a Christmas bash in Oslo.
The sudden jump in cases, which by Thursday afternoon totaled 171, may be more a reflection of diligence than incidence, Salvador Macip, a cellular biologist and author of “Modern Epidemics,” told Yahoo News. “We’re finding it more in Europe, because now we’re looking for it,” he said. Those detection efforts include performing genome sequencing on positive tests from previous weeks. But some epidemiologists are now predicting that Omicron will overtake Delta as early as next month.
The latest on the Omicron variant
With 32 mutations from the original Alpha strain of the coronavirus, Omicron remains little understood. It may be more transmissible and more resilient against current vaccines, as Dr. Anthony Fauci said at a White House press conference on Wednesday, but more data is still needed. What has become clear is that it is already appearing in significant numbers in Europe, which was recently designated by the WHO as the global epicenter of COVID-19 thanks to an ongoing surge of Delta. Omicron is also prompting a return on the continent to face coverings, quarantines, mandates for pre- and post-arrival COVID tests regardless of vaccination status, nighttime curfews and the imposition or extension of lockdowns.
And on Wednesday, von der Leyen made headlines by saying it was time to consider mandating vaccines across the entire EU, a move already planned for Austria and being considered by Germany. It’s the uncertainty about the virus that is prompting moves that sometimes appear extreme, even panicked, which is understandable, said Macip. “We’re in pandemic fatigue now,” he noted. “Every new drop feels like a tsunami.”
The masks that were ditched in July, when U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced “Freedom Day,” are being slapped back on by order of his government in shops, in elementary schools and on mass transit. To date, 42 of Europe’s Omicron cases have been in Britain. Nearly abandoned in favor of cheaper antigen tests, next-day PCR tests that were available for 35 pounds ($47) last week are now going for three to four times that amount since Johnson mandated that all international arrivals be required to take the more analytic polymerase chain reaction tests, which amplify small strands of DNA. Those who undergo testing are required to self-isolate until notified they are negative — or risk a 1,000-pound fine.
Spain is banning unvaccinated Brits from entering, and Portugal, Norway and France are now mandating PCR tests for travelers arriving from outside the EU. The minority of Frenchmen who have not obtained a vaccine pass could previously still enter shops, restaurants and museums if they showed a negative test from the previous 72 hours; now they’ll have to get a fresh one daily at about $90 a pop. And after Thursday’s announcement about an Omicron outbreak in Oslo, the Norwegian government is recommending that those in the capital work from home.
Many European countries have halted flights from countries at Africa’s southern tip; Germany allows arrivals of planes from those countries only if they carry exclusively German citizens, but those passengers now must self-isolate for two weeks once they land. Switzerland just announced 10-day quarantines even for those coming from parts of Europe, including Belgium, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and the U.K. — the first European countries where the new mutant variant was found.
In Spain, where three cases of Omicron have been detected, at least two of them in fully vaccinated travelers and one who had not visited Africa, vaccine passports are being rolled out in Barcelona and Madrid. In the Netherlands, normally bustling streets are dead, with bars and eateries now forced to shutter even earlier — at 5 p.m. — and soccer games will once again be played to empty stadiums. Slovakia, where Omicron has not yet been discovered, is so overwhelmed by Delta alone that it declared a state of emergency and locked down for two weeks, while Austria extended its nationwide lockdown for another 20 days; now even essential stores must close by 7 p.m.
Dr. Daniel Lopez-Acuña, former director of Health Action in Crisis at the WHO, pointed out that as Omicron circulates, along with the still-dominant Delta, vaccination remains key to fending off both, but so do the non-pharmacological measures that were recently dropped across much of Europe. “This variant will be stopped not by giving third vaccines alone or by stopping flights from South Africa," he said, "but by restricting the social interactions of unprotected people,” as well as increased contact tracing, genomic sequencing, social distancing, curtailing nightlife and ventilating indoor spaces as well as using face masks — even outdoors, in places with high infection rates.
Most Western European countries may not require full lockdowns, Lopez-Acuña thinks, but even in Spain, where rates are again accelerating — with 100,000 new cases of Delta over the past two weeks — “we need to seriously consider reintroducing restrictions and not think this will be a Christmas season like we had before the pandemic.”
Health experts underscore the WHO’s recent urging of countries to increase PCR testing, particularly of travelers. “It’s impossible to prevent the spread of a variant once it’s out,” said Macip, “but now is the time for countries to force incoming travelers to take a PCR test as soon as they land” and to self-isolate until their results are in.
Both Macip and Lopez-Acuña stress the need not to panic, but to prepare for possible worst-case scenarios. The crucial information they are awaiting is how effective current vaccines will be against Omicron. If the new variant is able to escape the efficacy of today’s inoculations, “we will have to produce new formulations of vaccines that also cover Omicron — and this implies revaccinating everyone,” said Lopez-Acuña. “That is a major task, and it will take a few months to develop new vaccines. In the meantime, there will be vulnerabilities, which is why the first mission is to restrict and protect social interactions.”
Another key bit of information is how Omicron performs outside the lab and in the real world. “Omicron definitely looks bad on paper,” said Macip, “but so did Beta.” And unlike the Alpha and Delta variants, Beta never took off and slammed the world in the same way. Whatever happens, he said, “it's not the end of the world. The backbones of vaccines are already there, the tests have been done. So perhaps we will just have to switch to a new vaccine and carry on. We are not back at square one.”