A large number of countries decided to halt air travel from southern Africa on Friday in response to news of a new variant of the potentially more transmissible coronavirus.
The World Health Organization declared variant B.1.1.529 as a variant of concern and named it omicron on Friday, following a meeting of its technical working group.
“The last thing we need is to introduce a new variant that will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said, amid a massive spike in cases in the EU at 27 members.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights “should be suspended until we have a clear understanding of the danger posed by this new variant, and travelers returning from this region should abide by rules strict quarantine “.
She insisted on extreme caution, warning that “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more worrying variants of the virus that could spread around the world within months.”
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers that “early indications show that this variant may be more transmissible than the delta variant and that current vaccines may be less effective against it.”
“We need to act quickly and as soon as possible.”
A few days after the discovery of the new variant, it has already made an impact on a nervous society sensitive to bad news from COVID-19, with more than five million deaths worldwide.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads, and many new variants, including those with disturbing mutations, often disappear. Scientists are watching for possible changes that could be more transmissible or fatal, but determining whether new variants will impact public health can take time.
The omicron variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa.
Israel, one of the most vaccinated countries in the world, said on Friday it had detected the country’s first case of the new variant in a traveler returning from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation. The country said all three were vaccinated, but was reviewing their exact immunization status.
Speaking ahead of the EU’s announcement, Dr Michael Ryan, WHO’s head of emergencies, said it was important not to have “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 stay open and stay focused,” a- he declared.
This advice has fallen on deaf ears.
Controversy over travel restrictions
The UK has announced that it is banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries starting at noon Friday, and that anyone who recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a blood test. coronavirus.
In a statement posted online Friday, South Africa said that while it respects the right of other countries to protect their citizens, “the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering UK appears to have been rushed because even the World Health Organization is still advising on next steps. “
In a statement, the African Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called on member countries to implement measures such as masking and physical distancing, as well as to step up vaccination. The health agency, which supports public health efforts in member states, said in a statement Friday that it “strongly discourages the imposition of a travel ban on people from countries that have reported this variant.” .
Germany has said its flight ban could be enacted as early as Friday evening. Spahn said airlines returning from South Africa will only be able to carry German citizens home and travelers will need to be quarantined for 14 days whether or not they are vaccinated. The country has seen a new record number of daily cases in recent days and surpassed the 100,000 death mark from COVID-19 on Thursday.
Italy’s health ministry has also announced measures barring entry to anyone who has stayed in seven southern African countries – South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini – in the past 14 days. due to the new variant. The Netherlands are planning similar measures.
The Japanese government has announced that from Friday, Japanese nationals from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine themselves in dedicated government accommodation for 10 days and take a COVID test on days 3, 6 and 10. Japan has yet to open up to foreign nationals.
In Washington, top US infectious disease official Dr Anthony Fauci said no decision had been made on a possible travel ban to the United States. There was no indication that the variant was in the United States and it was not clear whether it was resistant to current vaccines, he told CNN.
It was not yet clear what, if anything, Canadian health officials might do in response to the announcement of the new variant. Canada’s top doctor, Theresa Tam, and other officials are briefing on COVID-19, which can be streamed at the top of the page.
In brief remarks earlier Friday, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said discussions were underway – and urged Canadians to get vaccinated and follow public health advice.
– From The Associated Press, Reuters and CBC News, latest update 1:30 p.m. ET
What’s happening across Canada
What is happening in the world
As of Friday morning, more than 260.1 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Database. The death toll worldwide was over 5.1 million.
In EuropeThe German Air Force will start helping the transfer of intensive care patients on Friday as the government warned the situation in the country is more serious than at any time during the pandemic. Citing the sharp rise in cases, Health Minister Jens Spahn said people-to-person contact needed to be sharply reduced to curb the spread of the virus.
“The situation is dramatically serious, more serious than it was at any time during the pandemic,” he told reporters in Berlin.
Meanwhile, the European Union said on Friday it would ease its restrictions on the export of COVID-19 vaccines.
The Commission, the EU’s executive body, has said that from January it will no longer require vaccine producers to apply for special permission to export outside the 27-member bloc.
Earlier this year, when vaccines were still scarce, the EU introduced a mechanism to prevent some of the beatings from AstraZeneca, the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical company, from being diverted elsewhere. The export control system, aimed at ensuring that big pharmaceutical companies honor their contracts, was used by the EU in March, when a shipment of more than a quarter of a million AstraZeneca vaccines to Australia has been blocked.
When the dispute with AstraZeneca erupted, the EU was far behind the United States and other countries on COVID-19 vaccination. Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said the bloc has now vaccinated more than 65% of the total EU population, or some 450 million people.
In Africa, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will convene a coronavirus council on Sunday, as the country said the UK’s ban on flights from six southern African countries for the variant appeared rushed.
In the Americas, millions of Americans have been receiving booster shots at near-record rates after the Biden administration broadened eligibility last week, but health officials concerned about escalating infections ahead of the holidays. winter have urged more to get additional protection.
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In the Asia Pacific region, drug makers Pfizer Inc. and MSD, known as Merck & Co Inc. in the United States and Canada, have agreed to license companies in Vietnam to produce COVID-treatment pills. 19.
In the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned of an impending “state of emergency” due to the new variant detected in South Africa.
– From Reuters and The Associated Press, latest update 9:30 a.m. ET