Variant discovery in South Africa calls for travel restrictions

A number of countries – including Britain, Israel, Italy and Singapore – moved on Friday to restrict travel from South Africa and other countries in the region, a day after South African authorities identified a disturbing new variant of the coronavirus with mutations that a researcher said marked one ” great leap in evolution “.

In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants. This time, restrictions came within hours of South Africa’s announcement – and hours before health officials from the country were to discuss the variant with the World Health Organization.

Britain and Israel announced flight bans from South Africa and several neighboring countries on Thursday, citing the threat from the new variant. The UK’s flight ban applies to six countries – South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe – and starts at lunchtime local time on Friday.

“More data is needed but we are taking precautionary measures now,” said Sajid Javid, the British Minister for Health. said on Twitter.

Italian Governments, Malta and Singapore announced on Friday that they would impose similar restrictions. The markets were down in Japan in response to the discovery of the variant, and officials in Australia and in New Zealand said they were monitoring it closely.

“Our researchers are at work studying the new variant B.1.1.529,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza in a statement, using the variant’s scientific name. “In the meantime, we are careful.”

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Union’s executive arm, also said in a Twitter post on Friday morning that it would be suggested that flights to European countries from southern Africa be restricted due to concerns about the variant.

Over the past two days, researchers discovered the variant after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub around Johannesburg. To date, only a few dozen cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel and Botswana.

A number of variants have emerged since the pandemic began. An underlying concern for them is whether they will prevent the fight against the virus or limit the effectiveness of vaccines. South African researchers will meet with the World Health Organization’s technical team on Friday to discuss the new variant, and authorities will assign it a letter in the Greek alphabet.

In a statement published on Friday on a government website, South Africa said it would urge Britain to reconsider its travel restrictions, saying: “Britain’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering Britain seems to have been hasty, as even the World Health Organization has yet to give advice on the next step. “

In December last year, South Africa was the first nation to report the appearance of the Beta variant, which has now spread to almost 70 countries. Researchers have been concerned that some clinical trials have shown that vaccines provide less protection against the beta variant. Since then has more virulent and aggressive Delta variant has spread around the world and is believed to fuel the recent rise in cases.

With over 1,200 new infections, South Africa’s daily infection rate is much lower than in Germany, where new cases are driving a wave. However, the density of mutations in this new variant raises concerns that it may be highly contagious, leading researchers to sound the alarm early.

“This variant surprised us – it has a great jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very serious third wave of Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, head of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.

Emma Bubola and John Yoon contributed with reporting.

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