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EU Moves To Block Flights From Southern Africa Over Mutant Variant Of COVID-19

BRUSSELS (AP) — A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa today, 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.

Within a few days of the discovery of the new variant, it has already impacted on a jittery society that is sensitive to bad COVID-19 news, with deaths around the globe standing at well over five 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.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that she “proposes, in close coordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region.”

Scientists say the new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.

EU Moves To Block Flights From Southern Africa Over Mutant Variant Of COVID-19
People wait to get vaccinated at a shopping mall, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021. Advisers to the World Health Organization are holding a special session Friday to flesh out information about a worrying new variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in South Africa, though its impact on COVID-19 vaccines may not be known for weeks. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

“Early indications show this variant may be more transmissable 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 traveler who returned from Malawi. The traveler 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. Major indexes fell in Europe and Asia and Dow Jones futures dipped 800 points ahead of the market opening in the U.S.

“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% at $73.22 per barrel and the international Brent benchmark off 5.6% at $77.64, both unusually large moves for a single day. The pandemic caused oil prices to plunge during the initial outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 because travel restrictions reduced demand for fuel.

Airlines shares were hammered, with Lufthansa off 12.4%, IAG, parent of British Airways and Iberia, off 14.4%, Air France-KLM down 8.9% and easyJet falling 10.9%

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 that “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.

It quickly fell on deaf ears.

The U.K. announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon on Friday, 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 travelers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days whether they are vaccinated or not.

Germany has seen new record daily case numbers in recent days and passed the mark of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.

Italy’s health ministry also announced measures to ban entry into Italy of anyone who has been in 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.

The Japanese government announced that From Friday, Japanese nationals traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodation for 10 days and do a COVID test on Day 3, Day 6 and Day 10. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals.

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just 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 found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa, he said.

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% 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.

Germany said von der Leyen’s proposal 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 travelers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days whether they are vaccinated or not.

Germany has seen new record daily case numbers in recent days and passed the mark of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.

Italy’s health ministry also announced measures to ban entry into Italy of anyone who has been in 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.

EU Moves To Block Flights From Southern Africa Over Mutant Variant Of COVID-19
People wait in line to get vaccinated at a shopping mall, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021. Advisers to the World Health Organization are holding a special session Friday to flesh out information about a worrying new variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in South Africa, though its impact on COVID-19 vaccines may not be known for weeks. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

“These nations are considered high risk areas. It means a quarantine and double testing for travelers from these countries,” said Dutch Health Minister Hugo De Jonge.

In Israel, the health ministry said it has detected the country’s first case of the new coronavirus variant in a traveler who returned from Malawi. The traveler 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.

A fourth spike of the coronavirus is hitting the 27-nation EU especially badly, with governments scrambling to tighten restrictions in an attempt to contain spread. The flight ban proposal came in the wake of similar action from Britain on Thursday.

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

U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the dominant delta strain, and “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective” against it.

European Union nations were moving to stop air travel from southern Africa today, seeking to counter the spread of a new COVID-19 variant as the 27-nation bloc battles a massive spike in cases.

EU Moves To Block Flights From Southern Africa Over Mutant Variant Of COVID-19
People shop in a mall, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021. Advisers to the World Health Organization are holding a special session Friday to flesh out information about a worrying new variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in South Africa, though its impact on COVID-19 vaccines may not be known for weeks. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell)

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just 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 found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa, he said.

The World Health Organization’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.

The World Health Organization says coronavirus infections jumped 11% 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.

The EU’s emergency brake mechanism has been set up to deal with such emergencies.

Where the epidemiological situation of a third country or region worsens quickly, in particular if a variant of concern or of interest has been detected, member states should adopt an urgent, temporary restriction on all travel into the EU. This emergency brake should not apply to EU citizens, long-term EU residents and certain categories of essential travelers, who should nevertheless be subject to appropriate testing and quarantine measures, even if fully vaccinated.

Such restrictions should be reviewed at least every two weeks.