The first suspected case of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 has been detected in Germany in a person who recently returned from South Africa, tweeted Kai Klose, social affairs minister in western state of Hesse, on Saturday.
"The Omicron variant is, in all likelihood, already present in Germany," he said. "Several mutations typical of Omicron were found last night in a traveller returning from South Africa. There is therefore a high level of suspicion and the person has been isolated. The complete sequencing is still pending at the current time," he added.
If confirmed, this would be the second case of Omicron detected in the European Union after Belgian authorities had on Friday announced that a traveller who returned from Egypt had tested positive for the variant.
Two suspect samples were being analyzed, according to Belgian virologist Marc Van Ranst of the Catholic University of Louvain. One sample was confirmed as the novel B.1.1.529 (Omicron varinat), the virologist had said.
WHO asks countries in South-East Asia to be vigilant
In view of the detection of new variant of Omicron, the World Health Organization (WHO) on Saturday appealed to countries in South-East Asia Region to scale up surveillance, strengthen public health and social measures, and enhance vaccination coverage.
"Though COVID-19 cases have been declining in most countries of our Region, the surge in cases elsewhere in the world and confirmation of a new Variant of Concern, is a reminder of the persisting risk and the need for us to continue to do our best to protect against the virus and prevent its spread. At no cost should we let our guards down," said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO South-East Asia Region in a statement.
Singh said countries must enhance surveillance and sequencing. They should assess the risk of importation through international travel based on updated information on circulating variants and response capacities, and take measures accordingly, the statement said.
"Comprehensive and tailored public health and social measures to prevent transmission must continue. The earlier the protective measures are implemented, the less restrictive they would need to be in order to be effective. The more COVID-19 circulates, the more opportunities the virus will have to change and mutate, and the pandemic will last longer," the Regional Director said.
Meanwhile, the WHO's Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution met yesterday and designated B.1.1.529 as a Variant of Concern and named it Omicron.
Researchers are working to understand how transmissible or virulent this variant is, and how it will impact diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.
(With ANI inputs)