The UK has reported its first cases of the new Omicron coronavirus mutation as the variant continues to spread in Europe and scientists race to assess the level of risk it poses.
The UK health department said one case had been identified in Chelmsford and a second in Nottingham. The two cases were linked and were connected to travel to Southern Africa, officials said.
News of the latest infections came as the World Health Organisation urged a restrained approach to the variant to ensure that countries reporting cases were not penalised for doing so.
Sajid Javid, secretary of state for health and social care, said the government had discovered the two cases “thanks to our world class genomic sequencing . . . We have moved rapidly and the individuals are self-isolating while contact tracing is ongoing”.
The government would do all it could to protect the UK public against the emerging threat through a surge in testing capacity in affected areas and introducing travel restrictions, which from Sunday will apply to a further four African countries. “We will not hesitate to take further action if required,” Javid added.
The health department said the UK Health Security Agency was carrying out “targeted testing at locations where the positive cases were likely to have been infectious”.
The individuals that had tested positive in the UK, and all members of their households, were being retested and told to self-isolate while further testing and contact tracing took place, it said. Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of UKHSA, added that the agency was continuing its efforts “to understand the effect of this variant on transmissibility, severe disease, mortality, antibody response and vaccine efficacy”.
Confirmed cases and contacts were being followed up and asked to isolate and get tested.
The latest development was “a stark reminder that we are not yet out of this pandemic,” Javid said, adding that “getting the vaccine has never been more important”.
Prime minister Boris Johnson will hold a press conference at 5pm on Saturday alongside the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty.
On Friday, the WHO designated Omicron a “variant of concern,” skipping the intermediate “of interest” designation.
Results of tests to gauge Omicron’s response to vaccines and immune systems are not expected for two to three weeks, scientists and officials said.
Global travel has increasingly been limited since Thursday, with the US, the EU, Switzerland and the UK imposing varying levels of restrictions on journeys to southern Africa and a number of other countries where the variant has been detected.
The South African scientists behind the discovery of Omicron have moved to ship samples of the virus to biosecurity agencies worldwide, including the UK’s Health Security Agency and the government’s Porton Down lab.
Whitty said the UK would “continue to work closely with the international community to quickly gather and analyse information on this variant to understand any possible increase in transmissibility or resistance to vaccines.”
Meanwhile there was further evidence that the new variant is seeding in Europe as the first cases were identified in Germany and the Czech Republic, a day after a case was identified in Belgium.
Authorities in the Netherlands were investigating whether 61 people who tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving on two flights from South Africa on Friday had contracted the Omicron variant.
They have been placed in hotel isolation, according to Dutch health authorities.
“The positive test results will be examined as soon as possible to determine whether this concerns the new worrisome variant,” the Dutch health authority said.
Hotel isolation for the passengers will last for at least seven days.
Omicron appears to be behind a significant surge in cases in South Africa. Its heightened transmissibility has not yet been confirmed, though the World Health Organization has said it appears to have a growth advantage.
Some of its mutations have been previously associated with immune escape. Any variant significantly more transmissible than Delta, already more contagious than the ancestral coronavirus, or able to pierce through vaccine protection could seriously hamper the global recovery from the pandemic.
Additional reporting by Mehreen Khan