The UK will temporarily ban flights from South Africa and five neighboring countries due to concerns about a dramatically different Covid-19 variant recently identified in the region.
The travel restrictions take effect at noon on Friday and are a precautionary measure to keep the spread of the new variant in check, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said. All six African countries will be placed on the UK’s red list from Sunday, requiring travelers to self-quarantine at hotels upon arrival.
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Israel has also banned travel from all six countries, along with Mozambique, South Africa’s other neighbor, BNO News said in a tweet, without citing the source of the information.
Scientists are still trying to determine whether the new variant, called B.1.1529, is more transmissible or more lethal than the previous ones. What is clear is that it has the highest number of mutations of all the strains identified so far. That raised concerns within South Africa and internationally, and authorities fear a wave of cases that could put pressure on already strained healthcare systems.
“As part of our close surveillance of variants around the world, we have become aware of the spread of a potentially worrisome new variant,” Javid said in a statement, adding that the new strain is now under investigation.
“We can almost predict how this will play out.”
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The UK move is a further blow to the airline industry, which was beginning to rebound from previous travel restrictions and lockdowns but is now facing new restrictions and a resurgent virus in parts of Europe. The measures announced Thursday mark the biggest change to the UK’s Covid travel rules since the so-called traffic light system was overhauled in early autumn to make border crossings easier.
500 to 700 people arrive daily in the UK via South Africa on flights, a number that is normally expected to increase over the next four to six weeks due to seasonal travel.
In addition to South Africa, the countries covered by the new restrictions are Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
In South Africa, virologists have detected nearly 100 cases related to the new variant to date, according to Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist and chief of respiratory diseases at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases. No cases have been identified in the UK, the health department said.
Officials from the World Health Organization have gathered to discuss the variant, which has also been detected in Botswana, where it has been found in people vaccinated against Covid.
“Armed by our experience and understanding of the alpha and delta variants, we know that early action is much better than late action,” said Ewan Birney, deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, in a Science Media Center briefing note. “It may turn out that this variant is not as big of a threat as alpha and delta, but the possible consequences of not acting on the possibility that it could be are serious.”
The new variant likely evolved during a chronic infection in an immunosuppressed person, possibly in an untreated HIV / AIDS patient, said Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Institute of Genetics. The increased number of HIV cases in the world has made it harder for South Africa to fight the Covid pandemic, because the virus can persist longer in people whose immune systems are compromised, which could offer a larger window for mutations.
WHO experts will meet with South African authorities on Friday, according to UK officials. It will take several weeks to see the impact of the new variant on hospitalizations and deaths and to study how it may interact with vaccines.
© 2021 Bloomberg