BERLIN – The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has probably arrived in Germany, officials in the western state of Hesse said on Saturday, after mutations were found in a passenger arriving from South Africa.
“Last night several Omicron-typical mutations were found in a traveller returning from South Africa,” tweeted Kai Klose, social affairs minister in Hesse, home to Frankfurt airport, Germany’s biggest hub and one of Europe’s busiest airports.
He added the person was isolating and said anyone who had travelled from South Africa in the last few weeks should limit contacts and get tested.
The infected passenger arrived in Germany on Sunday and was fully vaccinated, Der Spiegel reported, citing the social affairs ministry in Hesse. No one was immediately available at the ministry to comment.
The city of Frankfurt’s health authority said it expected the results of a full sequencing on Monday. A routine check in the last week after a positive test had thrown up the case which showed indications of the new variant, it said.
It started testing all travellers from South Africa and Namibia on arrival at Frankfurt airport when the new variant became known. No tests have so far been positive.
“Our current routine procedures enable us, together with Frankfurt airport, to quickly implement the necessary measures to minimise the risk of spreading,” said Peter Tinnemann, head of the Frankfurt Health Authority.
The new variant has emerged as Germany and many other European countries grapple with a surge in coronavirus cases.
Health Minister Jens Spahn warned the situation was worse than ever. “We must reduce all contact, we are in a situation that is more serious than we have had before,” he said at a townhall with a group of experts.
Germany recorded 67,125 new coronavirus cases on Saturday, the Robert Koch Institute for infectious diseases said. More than 100,000 people have died with COVID-19.
Most Germans are braced for tighter restrictions as intensive care units, especially in eastern and southern Germany, reach their limits and COVID-19 patients are flown by the air force from hospitals that are overwhelmed.
Only 68.3% of Germany’s population of about 83 million is fully vaccinated, far behind the rates in southern European countries such as Portugal, Spain and even France. Some 10% of the population has received a booster shot, said Spahn.
Immunologist Leif Erik Sander of the Charite hospital in Berlin said current vaccines would probably offer at least some protection against the Omicron variant.
“I’m optimistic we won’t have to start from scratch,” he told the townhall, adding more research was needed.
Germany has said it will classify South Africa as a virus-variant area from Sunday. This stops short of a ban on flights but means airlines can fly only Germans to Germany from South Africa and even those who are vaccinated must spend 14 days in quarantine.