World takes action over new Covid-19 variant in Africa

World takes action over new Covid-19 variant in Africa

Several European and Asian countries banned flights, while many have made quarantine and testing mandatory for travellers

The UK announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective Friday noon. Credit: Reuters Photo

A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday, and stocks plunged in Asia and Europe in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible Covid-19 variant.

“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn, amid a massive spike in cases in the 27-nation European Union.

Within a few days of the discovery of the new variant, it has already impacted a jittery society that is sensitive to bad Covid-19 news, with deaths around the globe standing at well over 5 million. There are fears that the new variant could be even more contagious than the current predominant one and could bypass the effectiveness of the vaccination campaigns.

Read — Covid-19 will keep spawning variants till world is immune

“Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers. "We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” he said.

Israel, one of the world's most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it has detected the country's first case of the new variant in a traveller who returned from Malawi. The traveller and two other suspected cases have been placed in isolation. It said all three are vaccinated but that it is currently looking into their exact vaccination status.

The new variant immediately infected stock markets around the world as major indices fell in Europe and Asia, and Dow Jones futures dipped 800 points ahead of the market opening in the US. “Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Halley, of foreign exchange broker Oanda.

Oil prices plunged, with US crude off 6.7 per cent at $73.22 per barrel and the international Brent benchmark off 5.6 per cent, at $77.64, both unusually large moves for a single day. Oil prices plunged during the initial outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 because travel restrictions reduced demand for fuel.

Airlines' shares were hammered, with Lufthansa down by 12.4 per cent, IAG, parent of British Airways and Iberia, down by 14.4 per cent, Air France-KLM down by 8.9 per cent and easyJet falling 10.9 per cent.

Also Read — Israel detects its first case of new coronavirus variant

The World Health Organization cautioned not to jump to conclusions too fast. Speaking before the EU announcement, Dr Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the WHO said, “It's really important that there are no knee-jerk responses."

“We've seen in the past, the minute there's any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel. It's really important that we remain open, and stay focused,” Ryan said.

But, it quickly fell on deaf ears.

The UK announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective Friday noon, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.

Germany said its flight ban could be enacted as soon as Friday night. Spahn said airlines coming back from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home, and travellers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days, whether they are vaccinated or not.

Germany is witnessing record daily case numbers over the past few days and passed the mark of 100,000 deaths on Thursday.

Italy's health ministry also announced measures to ban entry of anyone who has been to seven southern African nations — South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini — in the past 14 days, due to the new variant. The Netherlands is planning similar measures.

Also Read — South Africa calls British travel ban over new Covid-19 variant 'rushed'

The Japanese government announced that from Friday, Japanese nationals travelling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodations for 10 days and undertake a Covid-19 test on Day 3, Day 6 and Day 10. Japan has not yet opened to foreign nationals.

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.

Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa.

The WHO's technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet. It says coronavirus infections jumped 11 per cent in Europe in the past week, the only region in the world where Covid-19 continues to rise.

The WHO's Europe director, Dr Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by the spring.

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