The omicron variant now circulating in western Europe was first detected in the Netherlands as early as 19 November, several days before South African authorities sounded the alarm, Dutch officials said.
The presence of the new Covid variant in Europe earlier than previously thought raises the prospect that it has been spreading unknown to health experts, adding to confusion and anxiety over omicron and the impact it might have on the pandemic.
Until now, the focus had been on two flights from Johannesburg and Capetown which landed at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport on 26 November, bringing at least 14 people carrying the new variant.
However, Dutch authorities have now said omicron was in the country before those flights arrived from South Africa.
The Netherlands' RIVM health institute found omicron in two samples dating from 19 and 23 November, several days before South Africa first reported the variant to the World Health Organisation.
RIVM said it was not yet clear “whether these people [whose infections were detected earlier in November] have visited southern Africa”.
Confirmation of the variant’s presence comes as German authorities said they had detected an omicron infection in a man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who had been.
A total of 14 omicron cases have so far been found in the UK, while 42 cases of the variant have been confirmed in 10 EU countries. Japan and France were the latest to report their first cases on Tuesday.
The Netherlands has seen a string of record daily infections in recent weeks, and an earlier partial lockdown appears to have had little effect.
It has now moved into a tougher lockdown, with bars, restaurants, non-essential shops, cinemas and theatres among the public places forced to shut from 5pm until 5am.
South African officials first discovered the variant when they studied virus samples after struggling to explain a sudden rise in cases.
The variant appears to have a high number of mutations – about 30 – in the coronavirus' spike protein, which could affect how easily it spreads to people. Moderna CEO Stephane Bancel has also told the Financial Times that he expected current vaccines would struggle with the omicron variant.
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