Scheduled airline traffic around the world, circa June 2009 – Credit Wikipedia
It is almost inevitable that by the time a highly infectious disease (like the original COVID-19, or one of its new variants) is discovered somewhere in the world - and is recognised as a potential threat - it will have already been carried by international travelers to other parts of the globe.
Even though we've only been aware of the Omicron variant in Southern Africa for about 72 hours, we are already seeing reports of scattered cases in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. While none have been identified in the United States, there is a pretty good chance it is already here.
Today we have press releases from Hong Kong and the UK, each having identified 2 cases of B.1.1.529 in recently arrived international travelers over the past couple of days.
We should not be surprised to see similar reports from other countries in the days ahead, as targeted testing for this new variant becomes more common.
Travel restrictions on travelers from countries where the virus has been detected may help slow its spread - but if the Omicron variant is as transmissible as early reports suggest - containment of the virus is highly unlikely.
Still unknown is how much of a hit the current vaccine's effectiveness will take due to the mutations in this variant, the chances for reinfection after previous infection, or Omicron's ability to produce severe illness (compared to Delta).
While there are obvious concerns over the sheer number of mutations (30+) in the spike protein, it will probably take a couple of weeks before we have decent patient data.
Two reports. First from the UK, this statement on their two cases.
Published 27 November 2021
After overnight genome sequencing, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has confirmed that two cases of COVID-19 with mutations consistent with B.1.1.529 have been identified in the UK.
- Individuals and their households are self-isolating and contact tracing is ongoing
- From 04:00 Sunday 28 November Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, and Angola will be added to the UK’s travel red list
The individuals that have tested positive, and all members of their households, are being re-tested and told to self-isolate while further testing and contact tracing is underway. One case has been located in the Chelmsford area and the other in Nottingham. The two cases are linked and there is a link to travel to Southern Africa. UKHSA is carrying out targeted testing at locations where the positive cases were likely to have been infectious.
In response to the developing situation, the UK is taking decisive action to protect public health. Confirmed cases and contacts are being followed up and requested to isolate and get tested as necessary.
In addition, in line with updated advice from the UKHSA, from 4am Sunday Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola will be added to the travel red list. Travellers who have returned from these four countries in last 10 days must isolate and get a PCR test. UKHSA are following up recent arrivals from these countries.
This adds to the six countries placed on the red list on Friday.
Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Sajid Javid said:Thanks to our world class genomic sequencing we have been made aware of two UK cases of the Omicron variant. We have moved rapidly and the individuals are self-isolating while contact tracing is ongoing.Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said:
We will do all we can to protect the UK public against this emerging threat and that is why we are surging testing capacity to the impacted communities and introducing travel restrictions on a further four countries: Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola. We will not hesitate to take further action if required.
This is a stark reminder that we are not yet out of this pandemic. Getting the vaccine has never been more important – please come forward for your first jab if you haven’t already and if eligible, book your booster as soon as possible.
We will continue to work closely with the international community to quickly gather and analyse information on this variant to understand any possible increase in transmissibility or resistance to vaccines.
It is important that everyone takes sensible precautions – get a PCR test if you have symptoms, isolate when asked, wear a face covering in crowded and enclosed spaces, ventilate rooms, get your vaccine and boosters as soon as you can.
Dr Jenny Harries, Chief Executive of UKHSA, said:
We have identified these cases thanks to the UK’s advanced sequencing capabilities which means we are able to find variants and take rapid action to limit onward spread. We are particularly grateful to public health colleagues in South Africa for early sharing of information on the Omicron variant to support global health security.
We are continuing our efforts to understand the effect of this variant on transmissibility, severe disease, mortality, antibody response and vaccine efficacy.
If you have any COVID-19 symptoms you must isolate and get a PCR test immediately.
It remains vital to come forward for vaccination, wear a face covering in crowded places and try to meet people in well-ventilated areas.
From 04:00 on Sunday 28 November non-UK and Irish nationals and residents who have been in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola in the previous 10 days will be refused entry into England. This does not apply to those who have stayed airside and only transited through any of these countries while changing flights.
UK and Irish nationals and residents arriving from 04:00 Sunday 28 November must isolate in a government-approved facility for 10 days. During their stay, they will be required to take a coronavirus PCR test on day 2 and day 8.
The UKHSA designated variant B.1.1.529 as a variant under investigation (VuI) on Thursday 25 November. In response, the government announced that six African countries - South Africa, Botswana, Lesostho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia - would be added to the red list.
The B.1.1.529 variant includes a large number of spike protein mutations as well as mutations in other parts of the viral genome. These are potentially biologically significant mutations which may change the behaviour of the virus with regards to vaccines, treatments and transmissibility.
The UK Health Security Agency, in partnership with scientific bodies across the globe, is constantly monitoring the status of SARS-CoV-2 variants as they emerge and develop worldwide.
As viruses mutate often and at random, it is not unusual for small numbers of cases to arise featuring new sets of mutations. Any variants showing evidence of spread are rapidly assessed.
We are particularly grateful to health protection specialists and the Government of South Africa for early sharing of local information on the omicron variant in an exemplary way to support global health security.
Our second report comes from Hong Kong's CHP.
The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) of the Department of Health (DH) today (November 27) said that since it announced on November 25 two confirmed cases carried viruses which belonged to a newly emerged lineage, B.1.1.529, the CHP has been closely monitoring and following up the latest development of the mutant strain concerned. In view of the latest announcement by the World Health Organization (WHO) concerning the Omicron variant, the Government implemented last night (November 26) the most stringent boarding and quarantine requirements for eight places in southern Africa. Starting tomorrow (November 28), the CHP will further strengthen the quarantine and testing requirements for Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) residents arriving from the relevant places, including arranging them to stay in quarantine centre for seven days.
The WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a Variant of Concern and named it Omicron on November 26 (Geneva time). The mutant strain possesses a large number of mutations and it was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on November 24. In addition, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, this mutant strain is the most divergent variant during the COVID-19 pandemic so far. This raises concerns that it may be associated with increased transmissibility, reduction in vaccine effectiveness and increased risk for reinfections.
According to official sources, apart from the information on mutant strain involving two cases provided by the HKSAR Government, the Omicron variant has been detected in a number of places including Botswana, South Africa, Israel and Belgium. To facilitate further risk assessment, the CHP has contacted the health authorities of Israel and Belgium for details about the imported cases there.
Locally, according to the whole genome sequencing conducted by the DH's Public Health Laboratory Services Branch, there are so far two cases which had been announced earlier (cases 12388 and 12404) detected to be carrying the Omicron variant. The CHP has earlier arranged for persons who had stayed from November 11 to 14 in the three rooms to the left and to the right of the two rooms concerned (Rooms 5111 and 5112) of Regal Airport Hotel to undergo compulsory quarantine at the Penny's Bay Quarantine Centre for 14 days. No new related case was detected so far.
The Government has been closely monitoring the latest scientific data on mutant strains as well as the epidemic situation of various places and will adjust the boarding, quarantine and testing requirements for persons arriving at Hong Kong from relevant places based on the risk levels as the situation warrants. In view of the latest developments of the Omicron variant, started from 0.00am today, along with South Africa which was already a Group A specified place, the Government also specified Botswana, as well as the adjacent Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe as Group A specified places. Non-Hong Kong residents who have stayed in these places within 21 days will not be allowed to enter Hong Kong. Details on the relevant boarding and compulsory quarantine requirements for respective specified places can be found at www.coronavirus.gov.hk/eng/inbound-travel.html.
Under existing requirement, persons who have stayed in high-risk Group A specified places on the day of boarding for/arrival at Hong Kong or during the 21 days before that day can only board flights for Hong Kong if they are HKSAR residents who are fully vaccinated and hold a recognised vaccination record. Upon arrival, they have to undergo compulsory quarantine for 21 days in a designated quarantine hotel and undergo six tests during compulsory quarantine, followed by self-monitoring for the subsequent seven days, and have to undergo compulsory testing in a community testing centre on the 26th day of arrival at Hong Kong.
To enhance the surveillance on the Omicron variant, starting from 0.00am tomorrow, the CHP will require HKSAR residents arriving from the eight places in southern Africa concerned to undergo quarantine at the Penny's Bay Quarantine Centre for seven days, during which they have to undergo testing every day and their health conditions will be monitored by healthcare professionals. Upon completion of the seven-day quarantine at quarantine centre, they will be allowed to finish the rest of the compulsory quarantine requirement at the designated quarantine hotel which they have reserved. They are also required to undergo testing on the 9th, 12th, 16th and 19th day and another compulsory testing in a community testing centre on the 26th day of arrival at Hong Kong.
The Government has also stepped up its surveillance on designated quarantine hotels and will ensure their compliance to the infection control requirements at all times. Persons undergoing quarantine are reminded again that they must keep the windows in the hotel room closed and wear the surgical masks when they open the room door.
The spokesman for the CHP said, "Although there are not any direct passenger flights arriving Hong Kong from the eight places in southern Africa concerned currently, we noticed the presence of the Omicron variant in a number of places globally. We must stay vigilant and implement the most stringent anti-epidemic measures to prevent the mutant strain from entering the local community. We will review the effectiveness of those anti-epidemic measures from time to time."Ends/Saturday, November 27, 2021Issued at HKT 21:39