Hmmm: Dutch find Omicron case dating to November 19, days before South Africa detected it

( Peter Kneffel/dpa via AP)

A tantalizing revelation that raises the possibility that the variant didn’t originate in Africa after all.

Last year, Trump complained frequently that the only reason America’s COVID case numbers looked so grim on his watch is because we did so much testing. There was logic to that, of a sort: Obviously the less testing you do, the fewer confirmed cases you’ll find. If you’re dejected by the misery around you, just close your eyes and pretend like it’s not there. What if Omicron has been spreading in hot spots across the globe but South Africa is the only country with its eyes open, doing the testing needed to detect it? Like the UK, they’re aggressive about genomic surveillance. It’s no surprise that they would detect a case of a new variant early while the U.S. still has no confirmed cases despite the fact that literally everyone believes the variant is already here.

If the variant didn’t originate in Africa but was merely spotted there first, the travel ban that’s been imposed on the southern part of the continent is essentially a penalty for being diligent about surveillance. Not great.

The news today from the Netherlands bolsters the possibility that Omicron didn’t originate in Africa, although what’s described here isn’t the earliest known case of the variant.

Dutch health authorities announced on Tuesday that they found the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus in cases dating back as long as 11 days, indicating that it was already spreading in western Europe before the first cases were identified in southern Africa. The RIVM health institute said it found Omicron in samples dating from November 19 and 23

“It is not yet clear whether the people concerned [in the earlier cases] have also been to southern Africa,” the RIVM said, adding that the individuals had been informed of their Omicron infections and that local health services had started contact tracing…

Belgium and Germany have also said that sample tests confirm the variant was in those countries before South African health officials alerted the world on November 24 to its existence.

Three different European countries had Omicron on their turf before South Africa’s experts knew about it, eh? And at least one case in Germany was found in a person who hasn’t traveled abroad or been in contact with anyone who has, a smoking gun of local community spread. Are we looking at a European origin for Omicron?

Well, hold on. The earliest known samples to test positive from the variant came from four people in Botswana who tested positive on November 11. Botswana is an African country, of course, one that borders South Africa to the north. But there’s a catch about the four people who tested positive: They were … foreign diplomats. And Botswana hasn’t said which country they were from or where else they had traveled. Did those diplomats bring the virus in from their home country or did they pick it up while they were in Botswana? Hmmmm.

Oh, by the way, this is what the case curve in the Netherlands looks like lately:

I’m not saying. I’m just saying.

Although South Africa had a head start on surveillance, other countries have been trying to catch up ever since the WHO announced the news about Omicron. If I’m not mistaken, S.A. still has the largest number of variant cases, so maybe Omicron really did originate nearby. Data continues to trickle in on what their scientists are finding, and while the news on transmissibility isn’t good, the numbers on severe illness are better:

That hospitalization data is encouraging but if it turns out to be true that Omicron can punch through vaccine immunity then it’s a cold consolation that it’s no more dangerous to the people it infects than Delta is. An immune-evasive variant can reach a larger population so it’ll send more people to the ER even if it’s only as virulent as previous variants were. In fact, per Bloomberg, children under the age of two account of 10 percent of hospitalizations in the epicenter of South Africa’s Omicron outbreak, an unusually large share. Although scientists are hopeful that that has less to do with actual severe illness than with parents bringing kids in out of an abundance of caution amid the scary variant news.

The data on how vaccinated adults are faring against Omicron remains sketchy but encouraging:

It’s conceivable that the fact that Omicron has so many immune-evasive mutations won’t add up to making it more threatening. Mutations work in tandem, the Times notes, and so it’s hard to predict what a given suite of mutations will do even if we know what individual mutations do. The Beta variant had a mutation known to make it more resistant to immunity — but it also ended up having two other mutations that made it more sensitive to vaccines. It’s possible that some of Omicron’s new features will undermine its spread. Although you wouldn’t bet on it given that the variant is spreading in South African, suggesting a certain degree of fitness.

Here’s a South African scientist lamenting how his country has been punished with a travel ban for being scrupulous and candid about genomic surveillance, something we should want countries to be. I don’t grasp that argument, frankly. Even if it turns out that S.A. isn’t where Omicron originated, it *does* have a hot spot of a brand new worrisome variant. Should we “reward” them for discovering it by not doing everything possible to prevent outbreaks of that variant in our own country? Even if a travel ban does nothing but buy time before Omicron erupts here, that time is valuable in postponing an epidemic until vaccine manufacturers have an Omicron-specific shot ready.