South African health minister slams travel bans as ‘unjustified’
A new coronavirus (Covid-19) strain first detected in southern Africa emerged in Europe and Israel yesterday as nations rushed to ban flights to slow the spread of the variant, feared able to overwhelm current pandemic measures.
Markets plunged as news sank in that the new variant – more infectious than the highly contagious Delta and possibly more resistant to vaccines – could potentially deal a heavy blow to the global recovery (See Business Page 3).
Scientists are now racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, designated by its scientific name B.1.1.529.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) said it could take several weeks to understand the variant and cautioned against imposing travel curbs while scientific evidence was still scant.
Europe is already struggling with a coronavirus surge.
Returning restrictions have sparked rioting in some areas, including the French Caribbean island of Martinique where 10 police officers were injured on Thursday.
Belgium’s government announced the first publicly known case of B.1.1.529 in Europe: an unvaccinated person who returned on November 11 from Egypt via Turkey.
The health ministry did not provide the individual’s nationality, age or gender.
“It must be repeated that this is a suspect variant – we don’t know if it is a very dangerous variant,” said Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke.
The strain has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa.
Israel said it has quarantined three people, one having just returned from Malawi.
Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands joined Britain yesterday in suspending flights from the region.
EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said Brussels would recommend that EU member states suspend all air travel between the bloc and countries with the new Covid variant, while Japan said it will require a 10-day quarantine period for travellers from the area.
The shock measures all included South Africa, and in many cases some or all of the following: Botswana, Eswatini (the former Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
“The last thing we need now is an introduced new variant that causes even more problems,” Germany’s acting Health Minister Jens Spahn said as his country battled a ferocious fourth wave of the pandemic.
The Philippines also suspended flights from South Africa, Botswana “and other countries with local cases or with the likelihood of occurrences”, according to the president’s spokesman.
The rush to close off southern Africa comes a day after scientists in Johannesburg said they had detected the new strain with at least 10 mutations, compared with two for the Delta.
The variant is of “serious concern” and had been blamed for a surge in infection numbers, authorities in South Africa said.
The WHO said it was “closely monitoring” the variant and weighing whether it should be designated a variant of “interest” or of “concern”.
It was also up to WHO to decide whether to give the strain a name taken from the Greek alphabet, as for previous major variants such as Delta.
Some, such as the European Commission, have already taken that step and were calling it the Nu variant.
Spooked European markets fell close by 3%, with airline shares especially hit.
Tokyo closed down 2.53%.
Vincent Enouf, of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, told AFP that the variant “is something very particular that can be worrying” given its genetic composition.
However, he said: “We must remain reasonable, continue to monitor it and not completely alarm the population.”
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) said it was “premature” to talk about modifying current vaccines to target the new variant.
Germany’s BioNTech and US drugmaker Pfizer said they were studying the variant, with impact data expected “in two weeks at the latest” to say whether their jointly developed vaccine should be adjusted if B.1.1.529 spreads globally.
In South Africa, meanwhile, helpless and furious tour operators deplored the quick end to the tourist season with safaris and beach holidays cancelled by the thousands.
“This is a knee-jerk reaction but with such a strong snowball effect,” said tour organiser Richard de la Rey.
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said yesterday that preliminary studies suggest the new Covid-19 variant may be more transmissible, but the decision of other countries to impose travel restrictions is “unjustified”.
He told a media briefing that South Africa was acting with transparency, and that travel bans contravened the norms and standards of the WHO.
The foreign ministry said that South Africa would speak to Britain to try to get it to reconsider its ban, and President Cyril Ramaphosa will convene an advisory council tomorrow to consider evidence on the variant.
“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.
Top US infectious disease official Anthony Fauci said yesterday that a ban on flights from southern Africa was a possibility and the United States was rushing to gather data on the new Covid-19 variant.
No decision to halt flights had yet been made, he said.
The Wall Street Journal, citing people familiar with the matter, said that White House officials were discussing potential travel restrictions on southern African countries.
Those officials were expected to meet with agency officials this afternoon to make a recommendation, the newspaper said, without specifying which agency.
The White House referred to Fauci’s earlier comments when asked about the report and declined further comment.
“There is always the possibility of doing what the UK has done, namely block travel from South Africa and related countries,” Fauci said in an interview on CNN. “That’s certainly something you think about and get prepared to do.”
“You’re prepared to do everything you need to protect the American public. But you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that,” he said. “Obviously as soon as we find out more information we’ll make a decision as quickly as we possibly can.”
Fauci added that there was no indication that the new variant was already in the United States.
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