Brazil and Japan joined the rapidly widening circle of countries to report cases of the omicron variant Tuesday, while new findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm. The Netherlands' RIVM health institute disclosed that patient samples dating from Nov. 19 and 23 were found to contain the variant, the AP reports. It was on Nov. 24 that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization. That indicates omicron had a bigger head start in the Netherlands than previously believed.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including whether it is more contagious, as some health authorities suspect, whether it makes people more seriously ill, and whether it can thwart the vaccine. Brazil, reported finding the variant in two travelers returning from South Africa—the first known omicron cases in Latin America. The travelers were tested on Nov. 25, authorities said. Japan announced its first case, too, on the same day the country put a ban on all foreign visitors into effect. The patient was identified as a Namibian diplomat who had recently arrived from his homeland.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States' top infectious disease expert, said much more will be known about omicron in the next several weeks, and "we'll have a much better picture of what the challenge is ahead of us." Before news of the Brazil cases broke, Fauci said 226 omicron cases had been confirmed in 20 countries, adding: “I think you’re going to expect to see those numbers change rapidly." Those countries include Britain, 11 European Union nations, Australia, Canada, and Israel. American disease trackers said omicron could already be in the US, too, and probably will be detected soon. A WHO official warned that given the growing number of omicron cases in South Africa and neighboring Botswana, parts of southern Africa could soon see infections skyrocket.
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