LONDON — The new potentially more contagious omicron variant of the coronavirus has popped up in more European countries, just days after being identified in South Africa., leaving governments around the world scrambling to stop the spread.
The U.K. on Saturday tightened its rules on mask-wearing and on testing of international arrivals after finding two cases. New cases were confirmed Saturday in Germany and Italy, with Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong also reporting that the variant has been found in travelers.
There are growing concerns that the pandemic and associated lockdown restrictions will persist for far longer than hoped because of fears that the new variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by vaccines.
EXPLAINER: What is this new COVID variant in South Africa?
LONDON — South African scientists identified a new version of the coronavirus this week that they say is behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.
It’s unclear where the new variant emerged, but scientists in South Africa first alerted the World Health Organization and it has also been seen in Botswana and travelers to Hong Kong, Belgium, Israel and elsewhere.
Health minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was linked to an “exponential rise” of cases in the last few days, although experts are still trying to determine if the new variant is actually responsible. In a statement on Friday, the WHO designated it as a “variant of concern,” naming it “omicron.”