Dutch health chiefs said they have found Omicron in samples dated from November 19 yet South Africa only reported the variant to the WHO on November 24.
The RIVM health institute found the mutant Covid strain in samples dating from November 19 and 23.
But the WHO said South Africa first reported the variant to the UN health agency on November 24 – meaning the new variant was already being transferred around the world before anyone even knew it existed.
The RIVM said the two samples from PCR tests showed an abnormality in their spike protein and were sent to a lab for further studies.
The results have now been returned and confirmed as the Omicron variant.
It is not known whether these earlier cases were identified in travelers who had returned from South Africa, or whether they originated elsewhere.
But it could call into question the origins of the new variant which has led to travel restrictions on certain countries.
Travel bans have been criticized by South Africa and the WHO has urged against them, noting their limited effect.
Much is still not known about the variant – though the WHO warned that the global risk from the variant is ‘very high’ and early evidence suggests it could be more contagious.
The Dutch announcement Tuesday further muddies the timeline on when the new variant actually emerged.
Previously, the Dutch had said they first found the variant among passengers who came from South Africa on Friday – but these new cases predate that.