Omicron – the new coronavirus variant which was first reported in South Africa was present in the Netherlands earlier than previously thought, officials say.
It was identified in two test samples taken in the country between 19 and 23 November when found in South Africa. However, it is not clear whether those who took the tests had visited southern Africa.
In the beginning, it was thought that two flights that arrived from South Africa on Sunday had brought the first cases of the Omicron variant to the Netherlands.
Among 61 passengers travelling to the capital, Amsterdam, who were found to have coronavirus – fourteen tested positive.
Though, while the two new samples expose Omicron was in the Netherlands earlier than believed, they do not preexist the cases in southern Africa.
Moreover, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the variant was initially found in a specimen collected on November 9.
This early evidence proposes that Omicron has a higher re-infection risk as compared to the previous variants. But scientists believe it will take about three weeks before it is known how the severely mutated variant affects the success of vaccines.
“In a special PCR test, the samples showed an abnormality in the spike protein,” the National Institute for Public Health (RIVM) which announced the earlier cases, said on Tuesday.
“This raised the concern that the Omicron variant… might be involved. [Health officials] will notify the people involved and start source and contact tracing,” it said.
The institute also mentioned that numerous other strains of Omicron were found among the passengers on board the two flights on Sunday.
“This means that the people were very probably infected independently from each other, from different sources and in different locations,” a spokesman said.
Meanwhile, the Dutch authorities are trying to contact and test thousands of passengers who have travelled from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
Countries such as the US, Canada, the UK and the EU have restricted travel from southern Africa amid concern over the new variant.
Nevertheless, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres said he was “deeply concerned” about the seclusion of southern Africa, adding that “the people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available”.