The World Is on High Alert as Omicron COVID-19 Variant Spreads
The strain, which was reportedly first identified by authorities in South Africa, has since been discovered in several other countries.
Hundreds of passengers on two flights from Johannesburg to the Netherlands on Saturday were held on the tarmac for hours after they were informed that they’d been exposed to the new Omicron variant of COVID-19.
New York Times Global Health Correspondent Stephanie Nolan, who was on the flight, tweeted that they wouldn’t even let a catering truck bring the group water during the wait.
Passengers were held in the terminal at Schiphol Airport for 18 hours while everyone was tested. Sixty-one out of 600 passengers tested positive for COVID-19.
Photographer Paula Zimmerman kept a video diary of the chaos. She ended up testing negative, but later, like all the passengers, had to quarantine.
“Everybody's waiting now to get tested,” Zimmerman said in a video during the wait. “There's little social distancing going on as far as far I can see.”
Scientists are now doing further testing to see if those who tested positive have the new Omicron variant, the form of the virus that officials fear will be less responsive to the vaccine. The Netherlands has now halted travel from South Africa, where authorities first identified the variant. Other countries — including the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and several in the European Union — have also enacted travel bans from the country.
The new variant is causing worldwide panic and is feared to all be more contagious. President Joe Biden addressed the nation Tuesday, urging Americans to get vaccinated.
“Do not wait! Go get the booster if it’s time for you to do so,” Biden said. “And if you are not vaccinated now, it’s time to get vaccinated and take your children to be vaccinated. “
Dr. Anthony Fauci also warned the nation that the travel bans will not stop the variant from making its way into the United States.
“It likely will come,” he said. “ It almost certainly will because it's one of those viruses that when you have a high degree of transmissibility, it's going to get to you.”
Drug companies are already working to tweak the vaccine to combat Omicron, but that could take months. On Monday, the World Health Organization said that the global risk for the variant was “very high.” The organization is stressing the importance of countries stepping up their vaccination and testing rates.
“Testing and tracing remains fundamental to managing this pandemic and really understanding what you’re dealing with,” said Margaret Harris, a spokeswoman. "We’re asking all countries to really look for this variant, to look if people who have got it are ending up in hospital and if people who are fully vaccinated are ending up in hospital.”
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