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Omicron Variant Puts World In a 'Race Against Time'

The world is in a "race against time" with the Omicron coronavirus variant, said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Sunday, warning during a visit to Latvia that scientists and manufacturers will need weeks to fully understand the new variant.

As more cases are identified and governments around the world mobilize to respond to Omicron, an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers will be convened on Monday, the United Kingdom said. It also announced on Sunday new domestic public health rules requiring face coverings in shops and on public transport starting this week.

Omicron was first identified by scientists in South Africa, who raised alarm over its unusually high number of mutations on Thursday. Since then, at least a dozen other countries have confirmed cases of the new strain, with several other reporting suspected cases.

Apart from South Africa, the variant has been found in Botswana, Belgium, Canada, Australia, the Netherlands, Denmark, United Kingdom, Germany, Israel, Italy, the Czech Republic and Hong Kong.

On Sunday, Dutch authorities announced that at least 13 people had tested positive at Amsterdam Schipol airport after traveling from South Africa. The Netherlands' National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) said in a statement that the variant had been detected through the sequencing of 61 positive Covid-19 samples that were obtained at the airport on Friday. It is "possible that the new variant will be found in more test samples," the institution noted.

Biostatistician professor Sheila Bird said the test results from Amsterdam were concerning, but that more data was needed. "There may be household clusters among the 13 Omicron positives or clustering may have been induced by where passengers were seated on the flight from South Africa," she told the Science Media Centre, adding that the vaccination status and age distribution of those infected will also need to be considered before any conclusions are made about the variant.

The situation should be seen with "alert rather than alarm until more is known," she said.

Canadian health officials also confirmed the country's first two Omicron cases in Ottawa on Sunday. Both individuals carrying the variant had recently traveled from Nigeria, according to a joint statement by Deputy Premier and Minister of Health Christine Elliott and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Kieran Moore.

"We continue to urge the federal government to take the necessary steps to mandate point-of-arrival testing for all travelers irrespective of where they're coming from to further protect against the spread of this new variant," the joint statement also said.

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