Southern Africa: Covid – Countries Suspend Travel From Southern Africa Over New Variant

The European Union wants member states to halt air travel with South Africa and several surrounding countries over a new coronavirus variant. Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic were all quick to react.

The emergence of a new coronavirus variant in South Africa has sparked international concern, with the European Union saying on Friday it will ask member states to “stop air travel” from the southern African region.

The EU’s announcement comes after a number of countries around the world suspended travel from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini and Zambia.

Here is an overview of which countries are implementing travel curbs.

Europe

Germany has declared South Africa as a “virus variant area” and, as of Friday night, “airlines will only be allowed to transport Germans” from the country, Health Minister Jens Spahn tweeted. Even then, “14 days of quarantine will apply to everyone, including those who have been vaccinated or recovered,” Spahn added.

Later on Friday, Spahn gave a press conference where he said that “some neighboring countries” of South Africa will soon be added to its list of “virus variant areas.”

All of these measures were “necessary, proactive and preventive,” he told reporters.

When asked about flights landing in Germany from South Africa on Friday morning, Spahn said: “I can only ask the people who have landed before these restrictions have come into effect, to stay at home, to take a test, and to monitor themselves closely.”

“I ask that everyone,” he continued, “not only those who landed this morning, but also those who landed three, five, 10 or even 20 days ago, to take a test. And preferably a PCR test.”

The Czech Republic, the Netherlands, France and Italy were quick to follow suit. French authorities have temporarily suspended flights from the region for 48 hours.

Italy said it was banning entry to those who have been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia or Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, in the past two weeks.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza said scientists were studying the new B.1.1.529 variant, “and in the meantime, we will follow the path of maximum caution.”

The Czech Republic’s ban begins on Saturday and applies to third country citizens who spent more than 12 hours in the past 14 days in the southern African region. Zambia is an additional country on Prague’s “prohibited” list.

Britain announced it will be suspending flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe with immediate effect.

Middle East and Asia

Singapore is mirroring the UK’s travel restrictions.

Israel is stopping entry from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Returning Israelis will be required to quarantine.

Meanwhile, Japan has followed a similar path, opting to tighten their border controls for visitors from southern Africa.

The Indian health ministry has issued an alert for the new variant, though, as yet, not suspended travel from southern Africa, according to India Today.

“This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country, in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel,” Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said.

As a result, all international travelers coming to India from “at-risk” countries must be subjected to rigorous screening and testing, the ministry has instructed.

South Africa confirms 22 cases of variant

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) confirmed that there had been 22 confirmed cases of the B.1.1.529 variant, and said more were expected.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said that it is one of the “variants under monitoring.”

According to WHO COVID-19 technical lead Maria Kerkhove, it would still take a few weeks to determine whether it should be identified as a “variant of interest” or a “variant of concern.”

“Everybody that’s out there needs to understand that the more this virus circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to change, the more mutations we will see,” Kerkhove said.

Currently only 6.6% of people on the African continent have been fully vaccinated. However, fears are also growing in areas with much higher vaccination rate. On Thursday, UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid suggested that the existing vaccines might be less effective against the new virus variant, and that it “may well be more transmissible” that other variants.

Scientists need more data

John Nkengasong from the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said that the data still needed to be investigated and assessed.

“We need to do more studies, there is a lot we don’t know about this virus,” Nkengasong said. “We have to look at this data very carefully before we make an announcement.”

According to the Africa CDC, a total of around 8.6 million infections have been recorded on the continent so far, and 222,000 of those infections were fatal.

kb, jsi/rs (dpa, AFP, AP, Reuters)

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