The coronavirus omicron variant was in Europe nearly a week before the concerning new variant was discovered by South African health officials, according to the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), Netherlands’ health agency.
On Friday, Nov. 26, a World Health Organization panel named the latest variant "omicron" and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the predominant delta variant — which is still a scourge driving higher cases of sickness and death in Europe and parts of the United States.
But the Dutch health department says it found Omicron variant in test samples taken in the Netherlands on Nov. 19.
"It is not yet clear whether these people had also visited southern Africa. RIVM has alerted the Municipal Public Health Services (GGDs) in the regions where the samples were taken. The GGD will notify the people involved and start source and contact tracing," the agency wrote.
Omicron’s actual risks are not fully understood yet. But early evidence suggests it carries an increased risk of reinfection compared with other highly transmissible variants, the WHO said. That means people who contracted COVID-19 and recovered could be subject to catching it again. It could take weeks to know if current vaccines are less effective against it.
Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was thoroughly studied. But a jittery world feared the worst after the tenacious virus triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe.
President Joe Biden said this weekend he does not anticipate the need for any new virus-related restrictions, beyond last week's move to restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region effective Monday.
"I expect the new normal to be, everyone ends up getting vaccinated and the booster shot, so we reduce the number of people who aren't protected to such a low degree that we're not seeing the spread of these viruses," he said, noting that there won't be a need for lockdown measures.
The discovery of evidence that the Omicron variant was in Europe before Africa, raises questions of where exactly travel bans are necessary considering the confusion behind the origin of the mutation.
On Tuesday, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke out against the travel restrictions imposed on his country.
"We reject the travel bans imposed on Southern Africa as they are not informed by science," Ramaphosa wrote on Twitter.
Meanwhile, the new variant is already spreading across the globe with the first U.S. case of the mutation detected in California, the White House announced Wednesday.
FOX 11's sister station KTVU confirmed with the mayor's office that the new variant was detected in San Francisco.
"This is the first case of COVID-19 caused by the omicron variant detected in the United States," Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease expert, said at the White House Wednesday.
According to Fauci, the individual who tested positive for the variant was a traveler who returned from South Africa on Nov. 22 and tested positive on Nov. 29.
The person was vaccinated but had not received a booster shot and was experiencing "mild symptoms," Fauci said.
According to the CDC, the person is self-quarantining and has been since testing positive. All close contacts have been contacted and have tested negative.
Genomic sequencing was conducted at the University of California, San Francisco and the sequence was confirmed at CDC as being consistent with the Omicron variant.
"We knew that it was just a matter of time," Fauci told reporters at the White House.