Germany and Italy have confirmed their first cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant, while more nations have imposed restrictions on travel from southern Africa.

The discovery of the variant has sparked global concern, a wave of travel bans or curbs and a sell-off on financial markets yesterday as investors worried that Omicron could stall a global recovery from the nearly two-year pandemic.

Britain has also confirmed two linked cases of the new variant, connected to travel to southern Africa.

This evening, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson outlined measures in response that included stricter testing rules for people arriving in the country, but stopped short of curbs on social activity other than mask wearing in some settings.

England's Chief Medical Officer, Chris Witty, said that there was still much uncertainty around Omicron, but "there is a reasonable chance that at least there will be some degree of vaccine escape with this variant".

Travellers queue at a check-in counter at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg

The health ministry in the German state of Bavaria also announced two confirmed cases of the variant.

The two people entered Germany at Munich airport on 24 November, before Germany designated South Africa as a virus-variant area, and were now isolating, said the ministry, indicating without stating explicitly that the people had travelled from South Africa.

Italy said it had detected its first case of the new strain in a traveller from Mozambique.

"The patient and the members of their family are in good health," the national health institute said in a statement.

Czech health authorities also said they were examining a suspected case of the variant in a person who spent time in Namibia.

Omicron, dubbed a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants of the disease, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe Covid-19 compared to other strains.

The variant was first discovered in South Africa and had also since been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.


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Elsewhere Dutch authorities said that 61 out of around 600 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday had tested positive for the coronavirus. Health authorities were carrying out further tests to see if those cases involved the new variant.

One passenger who arrived from South Africa on Friday, Dutch photographer Paula Zimmerman, said she tested negative but was anxious for the days to come.

"I've been told that they expect that a lot more people will test positive after five days. It's a little scary the idea that you've been in a plane with a lot of people who tested positive," she said.

Financial markets plunged on Friday, especially stocks of airlines and others in the travel sector, as investors worried the variant could cause another surge in the pandemic.

It could take weeks for scientists to fully understand the variant's mutations and whether existing vaccines and treatments are effective against it.

Dutch authorities said 61 passengers from two SA flights were being tested for the variant

Although epidemiologists say travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating globally, many countries around the world - including the United States, Brazil, Canada and European Union nations - announced travel bans or restrictions on southern Africa on Friday.

Earlier, Australia said it would ban non-citizens who have been in nine southern African countries from entering and will require supervised 14-day quarantines for Australian citizens returning from there.

Japan said it would extend its tightened border controls to three more African countries after imposing curbs on travel from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho on Friday.

Britain also said it was expanding its "red list" to put travel curbs on more southern Africa countries, while South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Oman and Hungary also announced travel restrictions on southern African nations.

South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the foreign ministry has said, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider.

Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in Covid-19 infections, and some have reintroduced restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. Austria and Slovakia have entered lockdowns.

The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on disparities in how far the world's population is vaccinated.

Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7% of people in low-income countries have received their first Covid-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.

Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Vaccine Alliance that with the WHO co-leads the COVAX initiative to push for equitable distribution of vaccines, said this was essential to ward off the emergence of more coronavirus variants.

"While we still need to know more about Omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world's population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged," he said in a statement to Reuters.

"We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world's population, not just the wealthy parts."