A number of countries, including the UK, Israel, Italy and Singapore, took action on Friday to restrict travel from South Africa and elsewhere in the region, a day after South African authorities identified a new variant of the coronavirus with mutations that one scientist said , marked “a big leap in evolution”.
In the past, it took governments days, weeks or months to impose travel restrictions in response to new options. This time, the restrictions went into effect within hours of South Africa’s announcement – and hours before the country’s health officials were supposed to discuss an option with the World Health Organization.
On Thursday, the UK and Israel announced a ban on flights from South Africa and several neighboring countries, citing the threat of a new option. The British flight ban applies to six countries – South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe – and starts at noon local time on Friday.
“More data is required, but we are now taking precautions,” said UK Health Minister Sajid Javid. said on twitter…
Italian government, Malta and Singapore announced on Friday that they will impose similar restrictions. Markets in Japan fell in response to the option opening, and officials in Australia and New Zealand said they were watching closely.
“Our scientists are working on a new version of B.1.1.529,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said in a statement, using the scientific name for the option. “Meanwhile, we are mistaken in being careful.”
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Union’s executive branch, also said in a Twitter post on Friday morning that she would propose to restrict air travel to European countries from southern Africa over concerns over that option.
Over the past two days, scientists have discovered this variant after observing the rise in infections in the economic heartland of South Africa surrounding Johannesburg. So far, only a few dozen cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel and Botswana.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, several options have emerged. One of their main concerns is whether they will stop the fight against the virus or limit the effectiveness of vaccines. South African scientists will meet with a World Health Organization technical group on Friday to discuss the new option, and the authorities will assign a Greek letter to it.
In a statement released Friday on a government website, South Africa said it would urge the UK to reconsider its travel restrictions, stating: advised further steps. “
Last December, South Africa was the first country to report the appearance of a beta, which has now spread to nearly 70 countries. Scientists were concerned that some clinical trials showed vaccines provide less protection against the beta variant. Since then, the more dangerous and aggressive variant of Delta has spread around the world and is believed to be the source of the latest spike in cases.
The daily infection rate in South Africa, where more than 1200 new infections are reported, is much lower than in Germany, where new cases are the driving force. However, the density of mutations in this new variant raises concerns that it could be highly contagious, prompting scientists to sound the alarm ahead of time.
“This option really surprised us – it has a big leap in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after the very difficult third wave of the Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
Emma Bubola and John Yoon made reporting.