New COVID-19 variant triggers global alarm as WHO urges caution

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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 researchers sought to find out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant.

Hours after Britain banned flights from South Africa and neighboring countries and asked travelers returning from there to quarantine, the World Health Organization (WHO) cautioned against hasty travel bans.


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The head of the UN World Tourism Organization called for a quick decision.

“It depends on WHO recommendations, but my recommendation will be to take decisions today, not after one week, because if it continues to spread as we are expecting then it will be late and will make no sense to apply restrictions,” organization chief Zurab Pololikashvili told Reuters.

One South African scientist expert labelled London’s ban a symptom of “vaccine apartheid,” though European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the EU also aimed to halt air travel from the region and several other countries including India, Japan and Israel toughened curbs.

“It is now important that all of us in Europe act very swiftly, decisively and united,” von der Leyen said, calling for EU citizens to get vaccinated and improve their protection with booster jabs. “All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clearer understanding about the danger posed by this new variant.”

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In Washington, top US infectious disease official Anthony Fauci said no decision had been made on a possible US travel ban.

There was no indication that the variant was in the United States, and it was unclear whether it was resistant to current vaccines, he told CNN.

The WHO said it would take weeks to determine how effective vaccines were against the variant, which was first identified this week.

The news pummeled global stocks and oil amid fears about what new bans would do to the global travel industry and already shaky economies across southern Africa.

People protest during demonstrations against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) measures in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on November 20, 2021. (Reuters)
People protest during demonstrations against coronavirus disease (COVID-19) measures in Amsterdam, Netherlands, on November 20, 2021. (Reuters)

‘Most significant variant’

The variant has a spike protein that is dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that vaccines are based on, the UK Health Security Agency said, raising fears about how current vaccines 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.

In Geneva the WHO - whose experts on Friday discussed the risks that the variant, called B.1.1.529, presents - warned against travel curbs for now.

“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told a UN briefing.

It would take several weeks to determine the variant’s transmissibility and the effectiveness of vaccines, Lindmeier said, noting that 100 sequences of it had been reported so far.

British health minister Sajid Javid said the sequence of the variant was first uploaded by Hong Kong from someone travelling from South Africa.

“It is highly likely that it has now spread to other countries,” Javid told lawmakers.

South African scientists suspect the sudden spike in infections in the country is linked to the new variant, but it is not clear how far it has spread beyond its borders.

South African sport began to shut down on Friday, with the imposition of travel bans forcing international rugby teams and golfers to scramble to leave.

Belgium identified Europe’s first case, adding to those in Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong. Denmark has sequenced all COVID-19 cases and found no sign of the new mutation, Danish health authorities said on Thursday.

Israel imposed a travel ban covering most of Africa.

“We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement. “Our main principle is to act fast, strong and now.”

Too late for travel curbs?

One epidemiologist in Hong Kong said it may be too late to tighten travel curbs.

“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.

European states had already been expanding booster vaccinations and tightening curbs as the continent battles a fourth COVID-19 wave, with many reporting record daily rises in cases.

Discovery of the new variant comes 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, while France suspended flights from southern Africa and Bahrain and Croatia will ban arrivals from some countries.

India issued an advisory to all states to test and screen international travelers from South Africa and other “at risk” countries, while Japan tightened border controls.

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.

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