BRUSSELS: New findings about the coronavirus's omicron variant made it clear Tuesday that the emerging threat slipped into countries before their defenses were up, as two distant nations announced their first cases and a third reported its presence before South African officials sounded the alarm.
The Netherlands' RIVM health institute found omicron in samples dating from Nov.19 and 23.
The World Health Organisation said South Africa first reported the variant to the U.N. health agency on Nov.24.
Meanwhile, Japan and France reported their first cases of the new variant that has forced the world once again to pinball between hopes of returning to normal and fears that the worst is yet to come.
Much remains unknown about the new variant, including how contagious it might be, but a WHO official said Tuesday that there could soon be a steep rise in infections in parts of southern Africa.
It is unclear where or when the variant first emerged, and the Dutch announcement further muddies the timeline.
Previously, the Netherlands had said it found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday, but the new cases predate that.
That hasn't stopped wary nations from rushing to impose travel restrictions, especially on visitors coming from southern Africa.
Those moves have been criticized by South Africa and the WHO has urged against them, noting their limited effect.
The latest news though made it increasingly clear that travel bans would struggle to stop the spread of the variant.
The Netherlands, Belgium and France have now all reported cases in people who were in their countries before the European Union imposed flight restrictions.
Japan announced that it would ban all foreign visitors beginning Tuesday, but that turned out to be too late.
It confirmed its first case that day, a Namibian diplomat who recently arrived from his country.
German authorities, meanwhile, said they had an omicron infection in a man who had neither been abroad nor had contact with anyone who was.
The WHO warned Monday that the global risk from omicron is "very high" and that early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.
The growing number of cases attributed to omicron in Botswana and South Africa suggests that this may be the first sign of a "a steep rise," Dr. Nicksy Gumede-Moeletsi, the regional virologist for the World Health Organisation, told The Associated Press on Tuesday.
"There is a possibility that really we're going to be seeing a serious doubling or tripling of the cases as we move along or as the week unfolds," Gumede-Moeletsi said.
After a period of low transmission in South Africa, new cases began to rapidly increase in the middle of November.
Currently, the country is confirming nearly 3,000 new infections per day.
The concentration of omicron cases among university students in the capital of Pretoria is a particular cause for concern because that group is very sociable, and will soon be heading for their homes at the end of the year and mixing with friends and family.
Doctors in South Africa are reporting patients are suffering mostly mild symptoms so far, but many of them are young adults who generally do not get as sick from COVID-19 as older patients.
Still, many officials tried to calm fears, insisting vaccines remain the best defense and that the world must redouble its efforts to get the shots to every part of the globe.
European Medicines Agency chief, Emer Cooke, insisted that the 27-nation EU was well prepared for the variant.
While it is not known how effective current vaccines are against omicron, Cooke said the shots could be adapted within three or four months if need be.
The latest variant makes vaccination efforts even more important, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, noting as many have before that "as long as the virus is replicating somewhere, it could be mutating."
In the face of the new variant, some introduced new measures aimed at mitigating the spread.
England made face coverings mandatory again on public transport and in shops, banks and hairdressers.
And one month ahead of Christmas, the head of the U.K.'s Health Security Agency, Jenny Harries, urged people not to socialise if they don't need to.
And after COVID-19 already led to a one-year postponement of the Summer Games, Olympic organizers were beginning to worry about the February Winter Games in Beijing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said omicron would "certainly bring some challenges in terms of prevention and control."
World markets continued to seesaw on every piece of medical news, either worrisome or reassuring.
Global shares mostly slipped Tuesday as investors cautiously weighed how much damage omicron may unleash on the global economy.
Some analysts think a serious economic downturn, like what happened last year, likely will be averted because many people have been vaccinated.
But they also think a return to pre-pandemic levels of economic activity, especially in tourism, has been dramatically delayed.
In a world that is already unnerved by the more contagious delta variant that filled hospitals again in many places, even in some highly vaccinated nations, the latest developments underscored the need for the whole globe to get their hands on vaccines.
"We have vaccination rates in the United States, in Europe of 50, 60, 70 %, depending on exactly who you're counting. And in Africa, it's more like 14, 15 % or less," Blinken said.
"We know, we know, we know that none of us will be fully safe until everyone is."
Updates on global travel bans
Canada announced a ban on foreign nationals from three more countries because of concerns with the omicron COVID-19 variant.
Canada is banning all foreigners who have traveled through Nigeria, Malawi and Egypt.
Dr Theresa Tam, Canada's Chief Public Health Officer, said all of the omicron cases in Canada have come from Nigeria which has a low vaccination rate.
Ottawa already announced a ban on foreign nationals from seven countries in southern Africa.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos also said all air travelers coming to the country apart from the United States will have to be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival at the airport and will have to isolate themselves until they get the results of the test.
The province of Ontario announced its first cases on Sunday and Quebec reported its first case on Monday.
The provinces of British Columbia and Alberta also confirmed their first cases of omicron in individuals who traveled from Nigeria.
Dr Deena Hinshaw, Alberta's chief medical officer of health, said the Alberta case traveled through the Netherlands and is asymptomatic.
Duclos said travelers from outside Canada still need to do a pre-departure COVID-19 test which they will pay for.
The Canadian government will pay for the test on arrival for air travelers coming to Canada part from the US.
Tam said there has been a rise in overall COVID-19 cases from Nigeria and Egypt.
Health officials in Brazil have reported the country's first confirmed cases of the omicron variant in two travellers returning from South Africa, the first such cases in Latin America.
The Sao Paulo state health secretariat said a 41-year-old man and a 37-year-old woman are in isolation.
They had their tests taken on November 25 and showed light symptoms of the disease at the time.
Latin America has suffered heavily from the coronavirus pandemic, with Brazil alone reporting more than 600,000 deaths, a figure that analysts believe to be undercounted.
Brazil does not require COVID-19 vaccination from foreign travelers entering the country.
Earlier on Tuesday, Japan and France reported their first cases of the omicron variant, while new findings indicate the mutant coronavirus was already in Europe close to a week before South Africa sounded the alarm.
It was last Wednesday, November 24, that South African authorities reported the existence of the highly mutated virus to the World Health Organization.
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.
Germany's national and state leaders will decide Thursday on new measures to tackle a sharp rise in coronavirus infections, officials said after the country's outgoing and incoming chancellors conferred with governors.
The measures are likely to include restrictions on shopping for unvaccinated people and limiting crowds at soccer matches, along with possible moves toward a vaccine mandate for all.
Outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and her designated successor, Olaf Scholz, held talks with Germany's 16 state governors on Tuesday, hours after the country's top court strengthened politicians' hand by rejecting complaints against curfews and other restrictions imposed earlier this year.
Many states have tightened rules of their own accord, but experts and politicians have called for more coordinated national action as infection rates hit new highs.
Germany's federal structure and the transition from Merkel's national government to a new one under Scholz since the country's September election have slowed decision-making.
Tuesday's talks brought agreement that "additional measures" are needed to reduce infections and pressure on hospitals, Merkel's spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said in a statement.
Proposals include contact restrictions for unvaccinated people in particular, requiring people to present proof of vaccination or recovery at nonessential shops, and restrictions on major events, he said.
In addition to limited vaccine mandates for some facilities that are already in the works, he said there is also the proposal that "a prompt decision on a general vaccine mandate should be prepared."
Neighboring Austria has already decided to make vaccinations compulsory from February.
Seibert said that a new permanent expert group to advise officials on how to tackle the pandemic, whose creation Scholz announced last week, will be headed by Gen.
Carsten Breuer, the military's head of domestic operations.
Officials stressed the need to step up Germany's vaccination campaign and allow more people to perform vaccinations.
"It has taken a bit long, there has been back and forth and some conflict on the question of who should do what when, but as of today that seems solvable," Markus Soeder, the governor of Bavaria, said after Tuesday's videoconference.
"Final decisions" need to be hammered out at the meeting of national and state leaders on Thursday, he said.
The governor of the worst-affected state of Saxony, Michael Kretschmer, said he expects an agreement then to play Bundesliga soccer matches without spectators.
Soeder signaled there's still some disagreement on that, but said that "if Christmas markets are closed, it is not consistent to have full stadiums."
He said he would propose excluding spectators until at least the end of the year.
New infections have soared in recent weeks in the European Union's most populous country, particularly in the east and south, with hospitals there already transferring intensive care patients to other parts of Germany.
They have hit levels much higher than those the country saw earlier this year, though many more Germans are vaccinated now than they were then.
On Tuesday, the country's seven-day infection rate dipped for the first time in over three weeks but, at 452.2 new cases per 100,000 residents, was only just short of Monday's record of 452.4.
The country's disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, said 45,753 cases were reported over the past 24 hours.
Another 388 deaths were recorded, bringing Germany's total so far to 101,344.
At least 68.5% of the population of 83 million is now fully vaccinated, but that's below the 75% minimum threshold the government hoped for.
Earlier Tuesday, Germany's Federal Constitutional Court found that the most controversial measures contained in federal "emergency brake" legislation that was in place from April until the end of June were in line with the constitution.
Those included a 10 p.m.-5 a.m. curfew and school closures in areas with high coronavirus infection rates.
That added to pressure for officials to act, as has the appearance in Germany and many other countries of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus.
All air passengers coming to Portugal must board their planes with a negative coronavirus test if they want to enter the country beginning on Wednesday when Portugal enacts its second state of emergency this year as it tries to stop a surge in new infections, authorities said Tuesday.
The director of Lisbon's airport, Rui Alves, told reporters that travelers will be given different wristbands depending on where their trip originated to ease their identification during the airport screening process.
The new entry rules were drafted before the first cases of the omicron variant were reported in the country in the last few days.
Those who fail to show a negative test face fines ranging from 300 to 800 euros (USD 340 to USD 910).
Airlines that transport untested passengers could also be fined 20,000 euros per person and, if they persist, could even lose their operating license.
PCR or antigen test results will be required for those arriving by land from outside of the European Union and from most EU countries considered at high or medium-high risk.
Japan confirmed on Tuesday its first case of the new omicron coronavirus variant, a visitor who recently arrived from Namibia, an official said.
Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said the patient, a man in his 30s, tested positive upon arrival at Narita airport on Sunday and was isolated and is being treated at a hospital.
Matsuno did not identify his nationality, citing privacy reasons.
A genome analysis at the National Institute of Infectious Diseases confirmed Tuesday that he was infected with the new variant, which was first identified in South Africa.
His travel companions and passengers in nearby seats have been identified and have been reported to Japanese health authorities for follow up.
Japanese media said two of the patient's relatives tested negative and have been quarantined in a government facility near Narita airport.
Matsuno said the government will maintain strict border controls and will step up its capacity to conduct genome analyses of the new variant.
Japan announced on Monday that it will ban all foreign visitors beginning Tuesday as an emergency precaution against the variant, tentatively through the end of the year.
The government is also requiring Japanese nationals and foreigners with resident permits to quarantine 14 days following entry.
The World Health Organization warned Monday that the global risk from the omicron variant is "very high" based on the early evidence, saying it could lead to surges with severe consequences.