Dutch health authorities said on Tuesday that the Omicron variant was present in the Netherlands earlier than previously thought, and before South Africa had first reported the new strain of Covid-19.
The variant was found in two test samples from November 19 and 23, with one having no travel history, suggesting that the variant was already circulating in the Netherlands, the RIVM public health institute said.
The first Omicron cases in the Netherlands were previously believed to have been the cluster of 14 among passengers on two flights from South Africa that arrived in Amsterdam on Friday.
The Netherlands now joins other European countries including Belgium and Germany that have reported cases of the new strain before it was officially notified by South Africa to the World Health Organization on November 24.
“We found two additional cases of Omicron variant which have been sampled on the 19th and 23rd of November,” RIVM infectious diseases chief Aura Timen told AFP.
“So that points at the presence already of this variant in the Netherlands.”
‘No travel history’
Dutch authorities had informed the two new cases and carried out contact tracing, the RIVM said.
“One of those two people had no travel history, the other had recently been to the south of Africa,” an RIVM spokesman told AFP.
The airline passengers with Omicron, who were among 61 travellers on the two KLM flights from South Africa that tested positive for Covid, are now in quarantine.
With 16 confirmed cases the Netherlands has one of the highest numbers of the new strain in Europe.
But the Dutch situation was likely to be repeated in other countries when they retest samples for Omicron cases, the public health institute’s Timen said.
“I don’t think that we are in an exceptional situation or exceptional risk at this point,” Timen said.
“The moment a new variant emerges and is announced, probably the variant is already spread all over the world.”
Belgium, the first European country to report the presence of the new variant, has said that a case tested positive on November 22, and had developed symptoms 11 days after travelling to Egypt via Turkey.
Germany has meanwhile said that a person who tested positive for the variant had arrived at Frankfurt international airport on November 21.
The Omicron cases come as the Netherlands is under a virtual night-time lockdown imposed by the government after Covid cases surged to record levels.
But last week the number of new cases had finally “stabilised”, rising by just one percent to 155,152, compared to a leap of 39 percent the week before, the RIVM said.
Deaths last week rose to 367, from 265 the week before.
New hospital admissions also stabilised at 1,996 last week but the number of people admitted to intensive care continued to rise, up 22 percent to 367.
‘Quarantine couple’ freed
Meanwhile, the Netherlands is to release the couple who absconded from a quarantine hotel but were later arrested after they boarded a flight to Spain, their lawyer and Dutch prosecutors said.
Carolina Pimenta and Andres Sanz, who were caught on a plane that was about to take off for Spain on Sunday, and were then moved to “forced isolation” in a hospital tuberculosis ward.
Pimenta initially tested positive for Covid on arrival on one of the KLM flights, but tested negative after a second test was administered in the Netherlands, the country’s public prosecution service said.
Based on this information it “now has about the incident, the Public Prosecution Service is of the opinion that there is no suspicion of a criminal offence, so there will be no prosecution”, spokeswoman Ilse de Heer said.