Schiphol (Netherlands) (AFP) -
Dutch authorities scrambled Saturday to see if 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for Covid-19 have the Omicron strain, as the shutters came down around the world to contain the new variant.
Germany became the second European country to find a suspected case of the highly infectious new variant, which has sparked fears of a major setback in the global effort to end the coronavirus pandemic.
Alarm grew after the World Health Organization said the new type, originally known as B.1.1.529 and subsequently renamed Omicron, was a 'variant of concern' and more transmissible than the dominant Delta strain.
Australia and Thailand joined the United States, Brazil, Canada and a host of other countries around the world restricting travel from southern Africa where the strain was first discovered.
Anxious travellers thronged Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many had cut back holidays and rushed back from South African safaris and vineyards.
'It's ridiculous, we will always be having new variants,' British tourist David Good told AFP, passports in hand. 'South Africa found it but it's probably all over the world already.'
'I think we got the last two seats,' said Briton Toby Reid, 24, who had been watching the sunrise on Cape Town's Table Mountain with his girlfriend when the ban was announced.
The main countries targeted by the shutdown include South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini (Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
- 'Arrived in Germany' -
But in a sign of the how difficult it is to contain the virus, the Netherlands found that almost one in ten -- 61 out of 539 -- people who had arrived on Friday from South Africa were positive for Covid-19.
The infected people, who flew in on two KLM flights from Johannesburg, were being kept quarantined in a hotel near Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, one of Europe's biggest international air hubs.
'The positive test results will be examined as soon as possible to determine whether this concerns the new worrisome variant,' the Dutch Health Authority said in a statement.
Europe is already struggling with a coronavirus surge that has forced several countries including the Netherlands to tighten restrictions, and a new variant threatens to worsen the situation.
A German regional official said Saturday that health authorities have identified the first suspected case in the country, in a person who returned from South Africa.
'The Omicron variant has with strong likelihood already arrived in Germany,' tweeted Kai Klose, social affairs minister in the western state of Hesse.
Belgium on Friday became the first on the continent to identify a case, a young woman who returned from Egypt via Turkey.
Scientists are now racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, and whether the current coronavirus vaccines should be adjusted.
Markets and oil prices around the world plunged on Friday as news of the latest setback in the fight against the pandemic sank in.
US President Joe Biden said countries should donate more Covid-19 vaccines and give up intellectual property protections to manufacture more doses worldwide to stem the spread of the virus.
'The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,' he said.
- 'Draconian' measures -
The WHO said it could take several weeks to understand the variant and cautioned against imposing travel curbs while scientific evidence was still scant.
South Africa's health ministry called the global rush to impose travel bans 'draconian' and the foreign ministry said it was 'akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.'
But with memories still fresh of the way global air travel helped the spread of Covid after it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, countries clamped down on the new variant.
Australia became the latest to act, banning all flights from nine southern African countries.
Thailand meanwhile restricted flights from eight countries, as did the United States, Brazil, Canada and Saudi Arabia.
EU officials agreed in an emergency meeting to urge all 27 nations in the bloc to restrict travel from southern Africa, with many members having already done so.
The new strain was already having an effect, though.
Next week's World Trade Organization ministerial conference, the global trade body's biggest gathering in four years, was called off at the last minute Friday due to the new variant.
Vaccine manufacturers have however held out hope that they can modify current vaccines to target the Omicron variant.
Germany's BioNTech and US drugmaker Pfizer said they expect data 'in two weeks at the latest' to show if their jab can be adjusted.
Moderna said it will develop a booster specific to the new variant.