Passengers From South Africa Stopped From Leaving Planes Over Omicron COVID Variant Fears

Passengers from South Africa were stopped from disembarking two planes on Friday that landed in the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, for around four hours over fears around the new highly-mutated Omicron COVID variant.

The new variant, which is thought to have 32 mutations in its spike protein and is feared to be able to bypass vaccines and immunity gained from being infected before. The Omicron variant that first emerged in southern Africa, has been detected in Belgium, South Africa, Hong Kong and Israel. In total, 85 confirmed cases have been identified so far, according to an online tracker. The variant has been described as "the worst one we've seen so far" and scientists are concerned about it spreading.

Paula Zimmerman, who was aboard a KLM flight that landed in Amsterdam at 10:45 a.m. local time, tweeted a video of a Schiphol airport official blocking passengers from leaving the aircraft, which had flown from Cape Town, South Africa.

"Just landed, but not allowed to leave the plane," Zimmerman tweeted.

During the video, a member of the flight's crew is heard saying, "The Johannesburg flight, also our Cape Town flight, cannot enter the Netherlands without any restrictions. So what that means, that is what they are finding out right now, and as soon as I have that information, of course I will let you know."

The passengers were eventually allowed off the aircraft, but the plane was stationary at Schiphol with all passengers on board for around four hours, according to Zimmerman.

Zimmerman told Newsweek she was returning to her home country after visiting some friends in South Africa.

"After landing we waited four hours before we could leave the plane with the stairs.
We are in a separate area G1 at Schiphol. Hardly any social distancing however," she said.

In a tweet, Schiphol Airport said: "Passengers of two flights from South Africa are currently being transferred to a secure location at Schiphol. Everything is done carefully and that's why it took some time. Passengers are provided with food and drinks. They will be tested on the coronavirus."

A spokesperson for KLM told Newsweek that both the KLM flight from Cape Town and another one from Johannesburg that arrived in Schiphol on Friday morning were held at the airport. The passengers have been transferred to a secured bus station by the Dutch Ministry of Health, where they are isolating while they await test results.

Britain, Singapore, Japan and Israel have imposed restrictions on travel from southern Africa as concerns grow over the new COVID-19 variant. The variant has been detected in Gauteng, home to South Africa's most populous city, at relatively high frequency, with more than 70 percent of genomes sequenced from specimens collected between November 14-23 belonging to this lineage, according to South Africa's National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the South African National Department of Health were alerted to the new variant earlier this week.

"We don't know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves," Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, told a Q&A on Thursday.

KLM 747 Superjumbo
KLM (Koninklijke Luchtvaart Maatschappij - Royal Dutch Airlines) Boeing 747 Jumbojet passing in front of the airfield buildings on June 18 near Amsterdam in the Netherlands. Passengers from South Africa were stopped from disembarking from a plane on Friday that has landed in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam over fears about the new COVID-19 variant. Sjoerd van der Wal/Getty

Correction 29/11/21 9:30 a.m ET: This article was corrected to describe the Omicron variant as "highly-mutated" instead of "highly-transmissible."