Europe, Asia tighten borders against new coronavirus variant as WHO urges caution - GulfToday

Europe, Asia tighten borders against new coronavirus variant as WHO urges caution


People lineup to get on the Air France flight to Paris at OR Tambo's airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday. AP

Global authorities reacted with alarm on Friday to a new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa, with the EU and Britain among those tightening border controls as scientists sought to find out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant.

Hours after Britain banned flights from South Africa and neighbouring countries and asked travellers returning from there to quarantine, the World Health Organisation (WHO) cautioned against hasty measures. But European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the EU also aimed to halt air travel from the region.

Scientists are still learning about the variant, identified this week, but the news pummelled global stocks and oil amid fears what new bans would do to already shaky economies across southern Africa.

Virusflight-Africans A mother takes time to rest with her children in Harare, Zimbabwe, on Friday. AFP

The variant has a spike protein that is dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that COVID-19 vaccines are based on, the UK Health Security Agency said, raising fears about how current vaccines, successful against the more familiar Delta variant, will fare.

"As scientists have described, (this is) the most significant variant they've encountered to date," British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News.

The WHO was holding a meeting in Geneva, with experts discussing the risks the variant, called B.1.1.529, presents, WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said.

Airport-virus Passengers walk at the boarding area at the Galeao International airport in Rio de Janeiro. AFP

For now, it warned against travel curbs. "At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against," Lindmeier told a UN briefing in Geneva. "The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing (curbs)."


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Nearly 100 sequences of the variant have been reported and early analysis shows it has "a large number of mutations" requiring further study, Lindmeier said.
British Health Minister Sajid Javid said the new variant had probably spread to other countries.

"The sequence of this variant ... was first uploaded by Hong Kong from a case of someone travelling from South Africa," Javid told lawmakers.
"... Further cases have been identified in South Africa and in Botswana, and it is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries."

Israel barred its citizens from travelling to southern Africa as Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said a few cases of the variant had been reported there,


One epidemiologist in Hong Kong said it may be too late to tighten travel curbs. "I think we have to recognise that most likely this virus is already in other places. And so if we shut the door now, it’s going to be probably too late," said Ben Cowling of the University of Hong Kong.

South Africa, which is to convene its advisory National Coronavirus Command Council on Sunday, will speak to British authorities to try to get them to reconsider their ban, the foreign ministry in Pretoria said.

Virusflight-2021 Passengers shop in a mall, in Johannesburg, South Africa. AP

"Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries," Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement.

Britain and other European countries had already been expanding booster vaccinations and tightening curbs as the continent battles a fourth wave of the coronavirus, led by the delta variant, with many reporting record daily rises in cases.

The new wave and discovery of the new variant come as Europe and the United States enter winter, with more people gathering indoors in the run-up to Christmas, providing a breeding ground for infection.

Italy imposed an entry ban on people who have visited southern African states in the last 14 days, and Germany will declare South Africa a virus variant area, a health ministry source said. France suspended all flights from southern Africa for 48 hours. Bahrain and Croatia will ban arrivals from some countries.

India issued an advisory to all states to test and screen international travellers from South Africa and other "at risk" countries, while Japan tightened border controls for visitors from South Africa and five other African countries.

The coronavirus has swept the world in the two years since it was first identified in central China, infecting almost 260 million people and killing 5.4 million. Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open in an external browser.


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