Omicron COVID Variant Has Spread to Third Continent

A case of the Omicron COVID variant has been detected in Belgium, according to a local virologist.

Leading local virologist Marc Van Ranst confirmed on Twitter that one COVID-19 sample was confirmed as the new strain first detected in southern Africa.

"In Belgium, one sample was confirmed as the novel B.1.1.529 variant (in a returning traveller from Egypt (11/11); first symptoms on 22/11)," he wrote.

Hours earlier, Van Ranst was cited by local media outlet HLN LIVE as saying that the country is analyzing two samples of the virus to determine whether they are the same as the variant that was first detected in Botswana.

"We are currently analyzing two suspicious samples," Van Ranst also said on Twitter, according to Reuters, which reported that his laboratory works closely with Belgium's public health body Sciensano.

According to The Times, the case was detected by laboratories at Leuven University.

"There is no reason to panic," Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said. "Caution and scientific analysis are certainly needed. It is a suspicious variant but we do not know whether it is very dangerous."

The case was detected in an unvaccinated woman who hadn't previously been infected with COVID-19, the news outlet cited Vandenbroucke as saying.

Confirmed cases of the variant have also so far been detected in Botswana, South Africa, Hong Kong and Israel. Including the latest case in Belgium, in total, 85 confirmed cases have been identified so far.

On Friday, the World Health Organization renamed the B.1.1.529 strain the Omicron COVID variant using the Greek alphabet naming system and classified it as a "variant of concern."

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said in a statement on Twitter that the commission was proposing, in close coordination with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region "due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529."

Many EU countries, including Belgium, are moving to reimpose COVID restrictions amid a spike in infections. Earlier this month, the WHO said that Europe is now the epicenter of the pandemic, accounting for nearly three-fifths of recent coronavirus cases worldwide.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo this week ordered bars and restaurants to shut at 11:00 p.m. for the next three weeks as part of measures to curb the transmission of COVID-19.

"We have been hoodwinked by the delta variant," he said during a press briefing on Friday.

Meanwhile, other nations including Britain, Singapore, Japan and Israel have moved to roll out restrictions on travel from southern Africa amid concerns of the new variant that is thought to have 32 mutations in the spike protein—the most mutations of any strain identified so far.

The WHO hasn't yet classified the strain as a variant of concern. The agency is set to convene with authorities from South Africa on Friday to discuss the variant.

UPDATE 11/26/21 9:41 a.m. ET: This article was updated to include additional information and a statement from the Belgian health minister.

Medical staff at the Etterbeek-Ixelles Hospital
Members of the medical staff take care of a patient infected by Covid-19 at the Intensive Care Unit of the Etterbeek-Ixelles Hospital on April 6, 2021, in Brussels. Two suspected cases of the new B.1.1.529 in Belgium are reportedly being analyzed. JOHN THYS/AFP/Getty Images