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Omicron: Europe's first reported case of new COVID variant has been discovered in Belgium

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By Euronews
Belgium's chief virologist Mark Van Ranst, right, prepares to administer the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Vaccine Village in Antwerp, Belgium, June 30, 2021.
Belgium's chief virologist Mark Van Ranst, right, prepares to administer the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Vaccine Village in Antwerp, Belgium, June 30, 2021.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

Europe's first reported case of a new COVID variant has been discovered in Belgium.

The B.1.1.529 variant, which is causing concern because of its "extremely high" number of mutations, was first detected in South Africa.

Health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said it had now been found in Belgium.

"We have a case that is now confirmed of this variant," he said on Friday. "This is someone who came from abroad, who tested positive on November 22, who was not vaccinated."

The country's chief virologist, Mark Van Ranst, said the variant was detected in "a returning traveller from Egypt".

The first detection of this new variant, potentially highly contagious, was announced on Thursday.

Several European countries including France, Germany and Italy, have already imposed new travel restrictions with South Africa and neighbouring countries that include a 14-day quarantine period for travellers whether they are vaccinated or not.

The European Commission has recommended all EU countries follow suit with President Ursula von der Leyen writing in a statement on Friday that "all air travel to these countries should be suspended."

"They should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant. And travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules," she added.

The announcement that the new variant has been detected in Belgium came alongside a new round of "winter" measures, that will come into force on Saturday, as the country is battling a new surge of infections and hospitalisations.

Private gatherings inside are now banned except for weddings and funerals although no more than 50 people can attend — 100 if the gathering is held outside.

Nightclubs have been ordered shut while opening hours for restaurants and bars are restricted from 05:00 to 23:00 with only sitting customers allowed and no more than six people at a table.

Indoor sports competitions can take place but no spectators — except parents of participating children under the age of 18 — are allowed.

"The situation today is worse than all the scenarios that all the experts showed us last week at a time when the impact of the measures last week are not yet visible today," Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told reporters

"We know that the vaccine is a layer of protection, the mask is a layer of protection, the test is a layer of protection, but there is no protection today that is absolute, there is always some risk."

"We must unfortunately (impose new restrictions), and I hope temporarily and I hope when we make the evaluation on December 15, we will be able to have better end of the year celebration compared to the situation we will have from tomorrow, but we must intervene now," he said.

Last week, authorities reimposed the extended use of the face masks and mandatory remote work.

Belgium has recorded an average of 14,030 new infections daily over the past 14 days, a surge of 66% on the previous two-week period. Hospital admissions have meanwhile risen by 46% over the past two weeks and deaths by 45% with an average of 33 fatalities per day over the previous 14 days.

The country of 11.5 million has lost more than 26,790 lives since the beginning of the pandemic and recorded over 1.68 million confirmed infections.

About 88% of the country's adult population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to figures from Santé Publique Belgique.