Omicron Variant Shown to Have Multiple Mutations and Started in Europe Before South African Exposure

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The new COVID-19 variant had cases in Europe prior to the South African announcement, and is said to have at least 50 mutations.

The new variant of the coronavirus, called Omicron, was first identified in Europe, according to Dutch health authorities.

The dates on the cases discovered by the RIVM health institute — from November 19 and November 23 — showed that the variant was already spreading by the time the first cases were found from passengers that flew in from South Africa.

The earlier findings were tested at Amsterdam's Schiphol airport, and Belgium and Germany both supported the evidence of the variant’s existence prior to South Africa’s announcement on the November 24. 

"It is not yet clear whether the people concerned [in the earlier cases] have also been to southern Africa," the RIVM said.

According to the institute, those on the flight had been informed of their Omicron infections and the local health services have initiated contact tracing.

The variant has spread rapidly to at least 20 countries, with Japan and France confirming their first cases on Tuesday.

There is concern from health officials that the Omicron variant could be more easily transmitted. Because of this and the concern around the potential of vaccine resistance, some nations have begun to impose travel restrictions on people coming in from South Africa. 

Some of these concerns come in connection with the variant's mutations. According to CBS News, the Omicron variant has more than 50 mutations, which enhances the virus' ability to infect an individual’s body.

Virologist Alex Sigal, lead of the South African research team that first identified the new variant said, "This is probably the most mutated virus we'd ever seen,"

According to CBS News, South African politicians and scientists feel that because these bans primarily focus on South African countries, they serve as punishments despite their advanced screening program for COVID-19 that has allowed other countries' ability to respond promptly to the variant.

This past Monday, President Biden and medical policy advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci said the Omicron variant was reason for concern, but not panic, according to the outlet.

Pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca supported this in a statement saying, "Despite the appearance of new variants over the past year, vaccines have continued to provide very high levels of protection against severe disease and there is no evidence so far that Omicron is any different," 

"However, we have the necessary tools and processes in place for rapid development of an updated COVID-19 vaccine if it should be necessary."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have already expanded their vaccine guidelines, recommending that all U.S. adults get a booster shot.

Sigal spoke to the lack of vaccines in Africa, warning that it would likely lead to continued mutations of the coronavirus, according to the outlet. 

According to CBS News, within about ten days researchers will know if the variant is resistant to the current vaccines that are available.

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