The omicron coronavirus variant keeps spreading around the world with more countries reporting cases on Sunday, leading some experts to warn that the travel bans governments have rushed to implement may be too late. Health authorities in the Netherlands said 13 cases of the new COVID-19 variant were detected among passengers on two flights that arrived from South Africa to Amsterdam on Friday. Officials had already said there were 61 COVID-19 cases among the more than 600 passengers on the flights. “It is not unlikely more cases will appear in the Netherlands,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge told a news conference. “This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg.”
Thousands of miles away, Australian officials confirmed that two travelers arriving in Sydney from southern Africa became the first in the country to test positive for the omicron variant. The two passengers were asymptomatic and fully vaccinated for COVID-19. The 12 other people who had traveled with them were placed in quarantine. “This clearly demonstrates the pandemic is not over,” Dominic Perrottet, the premier of New South Wales state, which is where Sydney Is located, told reporters on Sunday. “There are limits to what the state and federal government can do: These variants will get into the country. It is inevitable.”
Denmark also said on Sunday it had detected the variant in two travelers from South Africa. Earlier, the variant that was first discovered in South Africa had been detected in Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Botswana, Israel, Australia, and Hong Kong. The list of countries is only likely to keep growing as Austria said it was investigating a suspected case and France’s health minister warned the variant was likely already circulating.
As governments around the world implemented travel bans from countries in southern Africa, Israel decided to take a more extreme route. Israel said late Saturday that all foreigners would be banned from entering the country for 14 days to give experts time to analyze how effective the current crop of vaccines are against the new variant. Fully vaccinated Israelis will have to undergo a three-day quarantine while those who have not been fully vaccinated will have to quarantine for seven days. “The key here is caution and minimal risks until we know more,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennet said at a news conference. Morocco went even further, saying that it would halt all incoming foreign air travel for two weeks starting on Monday.
Many other countries, including the United States, are taking less extreme measures and have decided to ban travel from South Africa and other neighboring countries. These types of bans could help countries buy a few days but are unlikely to really stop the new variant. “By the time we have enough information to institute a travel ban, the cat’s already out of the bag, so to speak,” Nicole A. Errett, a professor at the University of Washington, tells the Washington Post. “Omicron has already been detected in other continents. A travel ban could in theory buy some time by reducing the spread of new seed cases, but we are talking on the order of days to weeks.”