On Saturday, fear of Omicron arrived nonetheless, as officials in Britain reported two cases of the variant, and Germany and the Czech Republic investigated suspected cases.
The numbers of confirmed cases outside southern Africa remain small, but there are worries the virus could have spread more widely before scientists there discovered it.
“It would be irresponsible” not to be worried about the new variant, Roberto Speranza, the health minister of Italy, the first European Union nation to block flights from southern Africa, told the Corriere della Sera newspaper on Saturday. “It’s a new and worrying element.”
After the initial shock of the discovery of a case of the Omicron variant in Europe on Friday in Belgium, European leaders, already struggling with a surge in cases that has made it once again the epicenter of the pandemic, tried to strike a balance between increasing caution and avoiding panic. But the virus would not cooperate.
On Friday evening, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, said on Twitter that she held “fruitful” conversations with the pharmaceutical companies and that they “explained their efforts to quickly and thoroughly understand the Omicron variant and adjust our strategies accordingly. Time is of the essence.”
The union acted with rare unity in response to the threat posed by the new variant, binding together to restrict travel to and from southern Africa.
Vivian Loonela, a spokeswoman for the commission, said Saturday that “member states agreed to introduce rapidly restrictions on all travel into the E.U. from seven countries in the southern Africa region — Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe.”