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COVID-19

Germany must be prepared for Omicron variant, warns top virologist

High profile virologist Christian Drosten says he's concerned about the new Covid-19 variant - and that Germany needs to be "prepared for all possibilities".

People queue for a Covid-19 test in Berlin.
People queue for a Covid-19 test in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

The Omicron variant of Covid-19, which was first detected in South Africa, has also been found in Germany. 

It was detected in three travellers in Munich at the weekend. In Hesse another returning traveller from South Africa was also confirmed to have been infected with the new Covid variant, according to the Ministry of Social Affairs.

READ ALSO: Germany confirms two cases of new Covid variant

In the most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, there are suspected Omicron cases in Essen and Düsseldorf.

The UK, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, the Czech Republic and Italy have also reported cases of the variant. In the Netherlands, 13 travellers were found to be infected with Omicron.

Researchers are frantically trying to understand how transmissible the new Covid variant is, as well as the severity of disease.

The head of virology at Berlin’s Charité hospital, Christian Drosten, said he was “quite concerned” about the new variant.

“I’m surprised to see so many mutations in this virus,” said Drosten in an interview with German broadcaster ZDF on Monday. However, he added that at this stage no one knows how these mutations affect day-to-day life.  

German virologist Christian Drosten in Cologne.
German virologist Christian Drosten in Cologne. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Rolf Vennenbernd

“There have been media reports of the disease leading to mild symptoms but I don’t think there’s much substance to that yet,” he said. “We’ve only seen about 1,000 cases and it still has to be observed. That means we really have to be prepared for all possibilities.

What we can say however is that infections have been mostly incurring in young people, often in those who have already had the disease and then get it for a second or third time.

“We really don’t know what we’re up against yet. But what we can say with certainty is that it’s better to be vaccinated and it’s even better to have had a booster vaccine.”

Drosten added that it’s better to “take it seriously now” as a precaution. 

The virologist, who advises the German government, went on to say that the next two to three weeks would determine whether vaccinations would have to be changed to deal with the variant.

An adaptation of the mRNA vaccines is possible, he said. “Technically, it will be relatively easy to do that. But we are talking about months here.”

The Omicron strain of Covid-19 was first reported in South Africa on Thursday, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) classified it as a variant “of concern”.

EU health authorities have said the new strain poses a “high to very high risk” to the continent.

Countries – including Germany and the UK – have brought in travel restrictions in a bid to contain the spread of the variant. 

It comes as Europe battles a drastic fourth Covid wave that has seen Germany experience the highest amount of daily cases ever. 

On Monday Germany reported 29,364 Covid infections in the last 24 hours, and 73 deaths. The number of infections is usually lower on Mondays due to reporting delays at the weekend. 

The 7-day incidence stood at 452.4 Covid infections per 100,000 people. 

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TRAVEL NEWS

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

The mandatory EU-wide mask requirement for air travel is set to be dropped from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still require passengers to wear masks on some or all flights

Covid face mask rule on flights in Europe set to be eased

Europe-wide facemask rules on flights are set to be ditched as early as next week in light of new recommendations from health and air safety experts.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) dropped recommendations for mandatory mask-wearing in airports and during flights in updated Covid-19 safety measures for travel issued on Wednesday, May 11th.

The new rules are expected to be rolled out from Monday, May 16th, but airlines may still continue to require the wearing of masks on some or all of flights. And the updated health safety measures still say that wearing a face mask remains one of the best ways to protect against the transmission of the virus.

The joint EASA/ECDC statement reminded travellers that masks may still be required on flights to destinations in certain countries that still require the wearing of masks on public transport and in transport hubs.

It also recommends that vulnerable passengers should continue to wear a face mask regardless of the rules, ideally an FFP2/N95/KN95 type mask which offers a higher level of protection than a standard surgical mask.

“From next week, face masks will no longer need to be mandatory in air travel in all cases, broadly aligning with the changing requirements of national authorities across Europe for public transport,” EASA executive director Patrick Ky said in the statement. 

“For passengers and air crews, this is a big step forward in the normalisation of air travel. Passengers should however behave responsibly and respect the choices of others around them. And a passenger who is coughing and sneezing should strongly consider wearing a face mask, for the reassurance of those seated nearby.”  

ECDC director Andrea Ammon added: “The development and continuous updates to the Aviation Health Safety Protocol in light of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have given travellers and aviation personnel better knowledge of the risks of transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants. 

“While risks do remain, we have seen that non-pharmaceutical interventions and vaccines have allowed our lives to begin to return to normal. 

“While mandatory mask-wearing in all situations is no longer recommended, it is important to be mindful that together with physical distancing and good hand hygiene it is one of the best methods of reducing transmission. 

“The rules and requirements of departure and destination states should be respected and applied consistently, and travel operators should take care to inform passengers of any required measures in a timely manner.”

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