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Here’s how two flights to the Netherlands could have helped Omicron spread.

todayDecember 1, 2021 5

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The hundreds of passengers traveling from South Africa to Amsterdam on Friday, on flight KL592, came armed with paperwork proving their eligibility to fly. Check-in agents sifted through a bewildering assortment of requirements determined by final destination.

But while the flight was en route, and the passengers slept or watched their screens, everything changed on the ground.

Panic about the new Omicron variant that had been discovered in southern Africa prompted countries to close their borders. The arrivals descended into a new post-Omicron reality, and it was a hellish one, with hours spent breathing stale air as their planes sat on the tarmac, then fighting exhaustion in crammed waiting rooms, awaiting swab results in close quarters with fellow travelers who would turn out to be infected with the new and possibly more dangerous variant.

“We were in the same place, the same room,” said one passenger, Jan Mezek, 39, a laboratory technician whose company services swab-test machines and who was returning from a two-week work trip to his home in Prague. “I felt like a pig in a pen,” he said, adding: “They were completely spreading the virus around us.”

Of the more than 60 people on that and another KLM flight from South Africa who tested positive for the virus, at least 14 had Omicron, according to Dutch officials. The Dutch authorities have quarantined them while requiring the hundreds who showed negative results from the PCR test administered at the airport to go home or board connecting flights to their final destinations.

“They went around the world, who knows where,” said Fabrizio Pregliasco, a prominent Italian virologist at the University of Milan. He said that all the passengers should have been quarantined or isolated and monitored closely for seven to 10 days, especially because they could have caught the virus on the flight and tested negative as it incubated.

“If this variant is very contagious, this flight is an explosive bomb,” Dr. Pregliasco said.

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