Officials in the Netherlands say the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, was present in the country earlier than previously thought, indicating that it was already spreading in western Europe before the first cases were identified in southern Africa. The variant was identified in two test samples taken in the country between November 19 and 23. South Africa alerted the world to the variant’s existence on November 24. It is not clear whether those who took the tests in the Netherlands had visited southern Africa. Belgium and Germany have also said that sample tests confirm the variant was in those countries before South African health officials reported it. Japan and France on Tuesday confirmed their first cases of the new variant. Omicron has now spread to about 20 countries. Amid mounting concern that it could be significantly easier to pass from person to person, and that it could have at least some resistance to current treatments and vaccines, many nations have imposed travel restrictions on passengers from southern African nations.