Dutch health authorities have announced that 13 cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant have been found among passengers who were on flights from South Africa that arrived in Amsterdam on Friday.
Authorities had tested all of the more than 600 passengers on those two flights and had found 61 coronavirus cases, going on to test those for the new variant.
That was before the Dutch government restricted air traffic from southern Africa due to concerns over the variant.
“It is not unlikely more cases will appear in the Netherlands,” Health Minister Hugo de Jonge told a news conference in Rotterdam on Sunday. “This could possibly be the tip of the iceberg.”
A spokesperson for KLM, the Dutch arm of Air France, earlier said the passengers on the flight had either tested negative or shown proof of vaccination before getting on planes in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
“It goes too far to say we are surprised” by the high number of cases, a KLM spokesperson said. “But we don’t have an explanation.”
The spokesperson said it was possible many of the positive cases were among vaccinated people, or that an unusual number of people developed infections after having tested negative.
Dutch health authorities were seeking to contact some 5,000 other passengers who have travelled from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia or Zimbabwe since Monday to urge them to take a COVID-19 test as soon as possible.
First discovered in South Africa, the variant has now been detected in the UK, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Botswana, Israel, Australia and Hong Kong.
‘It’s a little scary’
Paula Zimmerman, a Dutch photographer who returned from a family visit in South Africa on Friday morning, said the situation for the passengers on the planes was chaotic, as they were kept waiting on the tarmac and in the terminal for hours.
Zimmerman was told she had tested negative at 4 am, almost 18 hours after landing in Amsterdam. But she then found out she was standing right next to a man who discovered he had tested positive.
“It was really weird. There was no coordination. There were too few people and there really wasn’t anybody who took control.”
Having spent hours on a flight that likely had many infected passengers made Zimmerman anxious for the days to come, she said.
“I’ve been told that they expect that a lot more people will test positive after five days. It’s a little scary, the idea that you’ve been in a plane with a lot of people who tested positive.”
New York Times global health reporter Stephanie Nolen also tweeted her ordeal at what she called “Dystopia Central Airline Hallway”.
She described how passengers, including babies and toddlers, were crammed together waiting to get tested, while “still 30 percent of people are wearing no mask or only over mouth”.
Dutch citizens are still allowed to return home from southern Africa, while European Union citizens are allowed entry in transit to their home countries.
Medical staff, airline crews and people with pressing needs are also still allowed to travel. KLM will continue flights to the region, but all travellers must now test negative before departure and then quarantine for at least five days upon arrival in the Netherlands.
The new variant has been detected as many European countries grapple with a surge in coronavirus cases.
The Dutch government on Friday announced the nighttime closure of bars, restaurants and most stores, as it tries to curb a record-breaking wave of COVID-19 cases that is swamping its healthcare system.