BERLIN (REUTERS, AFP) - The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has probably arrived in Germany, a minister in the western state of Hesse said on Saturday (Nov 27) after mutations were found in a passenger arriving from South Africa.
"Last night, several Omicron-typical mutations were found in a traveller returning from South Africa," tweeted Mr Kai Klose, Social Affairs Minister in Hesse, home to Frankfurt airport, Germany's biggest hub and one of Europe's busiest airports.
He added that a full sequencing of the variant was being carried out and that the person was isolating, and he urged anyone who had travelled from South Africa in the last few weeks to limit contacts and get tested.
The city of Frankfurt's health authority said later it expected the results of a full sequencing on Monday. A routine check last week after a positive test had thrown up the case which showed indications of the new variant, it said.
It started testing all travellers from South Africa and Namibia on arrival at Frankfurt airport when the new variant became known. No tests have so far been positive.
"Our current routine procedures enable us, together with Frankfurt airport, to quickly implement the necessary measures to minimise the risk of spreading," said Mr Peter Tinnemann, head of the Frankfurt Health Authority.
The new variant has been found at a time when Germany and many other European countries are grappling with a surge in coronavirus cases.
Health Minister Jens Spahn warned the situation was worse than ever. "We must reduce all contact, we are in a situation that is more serious than we have had before," he said at a townhall with a group of experts.
Germany recorded 67,125 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases said, and more than 100,000 people have died with Covid-19.
Most Germans are braced for tighter restrictions as intensive care units, especially in eastern and southern Germany, reach their limits and Covid-19 patients are transferred from hospitals that are overwhelmed.
The Leopoldina, a respected official scientific advisory body, recommended a drastic reduction in contact, at least in hard-hit regions, and compulsory vaccinations.
Only 68.3 per cent of Germany's population of about 83 million is fully vaccinated, far behind the rates in southern European countries such as Portugal, Spain and even France.
Some 10 per cent of the population has received a booster shot, said Mr Spahn.
Immunologist Leif Erik Sander of the Charite hospital in Berlin said current vaccines would probably offer at least some protection against the Omicron variant.
"I'm optimistic we won't have to start from scratch," he told the townhall, adding more research was needed.
Germany has said it will classify South Africa as a virus-variant area from Sunday. This stops short of a ban on flights but means airlines can fly only Germans to Germany from South Africa and even those who are vaccinated must spend 14 days in quarantine.
Mr Andrej Babis, Prime Minister of the neighbouring Czech Republic, said on Saturday that a local lab was checking a sample from a woman who had been in Namibia and tested positive upon arrival.
"She flew back to the Czech Republic via South Africa and Dubai," said Mr Babis in a tweet. "The woman is vaccinated, she has mild symptoms and we will have the result of the sequencing test tomorrow."
Earlier, Dutch health officials said they had detected 61 Covid-19 cases among people who flew from South Africa on Friday and are trying to establish whether any were infected with the Omicron variant.
The European Union health authorities have said the new strain poses a "high to very high risk" to the continent.
EU officials agreed on Friday to urge all 27 nations in the bloc to restrict travel from several southern African nations, a policy Germany has already implemented.