BERLIN/LONDON (NYTIMES, REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - The Omicron variant of Covid-19 has been confirmed in more economies, with the Health Ministry for the state of Bavaria in Germany confirming that two people infected with the new variant returned from a trip to South Africa last week.
The two travellers, a married couple who arrived on a flight last Tuesday, tested positive for the coronavirus, said Bavarian Health Minister Klaus Holetschek in a public television interview last Friday.
In addition, at least one person returning from South Africa was suspected of being infected with the Omicron variant in the state of Hesse in central Germany.
First discovered in South Africa, Omicron has since been detected in economies such as Britain, Italy, Belgium, Botswana, Israel, Hong Kong, Australia, the Netherlands and Germany.
News of the new variant in Germany prompted fresh concern, with the country already struggling to curb a brutal fourth wave of Covid-19 that has produced tens of thousands of new daily infections.
The daily tally for Europe's largest economy is higher than it has been at any point during the pandemic. Hospitals across Germany have been struggling to accommodate a surge in Covid-19 patients.
Dr Oliver Keppler, the virus expert in charge of sequencing the new cases in Bavaria, said: "We have to break the Delta wave together now to be able to have some breathing space."
Omicron has also thrown a spotlight on the huge disparities in vaccination rates around the globe.
Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7 per cent of people in low-income countries have received their first Covid-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups.
Germany was one of several European countries with confirmed cases of the new variant.
The Dutch health authorities announced that 13 cases of the variant were found among passengers on flights from South Africa that arrived in Amsterdam last Friday.
Belgium reported a case last Friday in a traveller returning from outside southern Africa.
Italy said on Saturday that it had confirmed a case in a traveller who had arrived from Mozambique.
Several countries in Europe were also investigating suspected cases of the new variant.
On Saturday, the Czech Republic detected a case in a woman who had been in Namibia and flew back via South Africa and Dubai.
Denmark was looking into two suspected cases who had arrived from South Africa.
And in Austria, one recently returned traveller is suspected of being infected with the variant.
In France, Health Minister Olivier Veran said the new variant was probably already circulating there.
In Australia, health officials in the country's most populous state New South Wales (NSW) said two passengers who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa on Saturday evening had tested positive for the variant. Both people were asymptomatic, fully vaccinated and under quarantine, NSW Health said.
Although epidemiologists say travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating, many countries have announced travel bans or restrictions on southern Africa.