Several countries, including the United Kingdom, Israel and Singapore, have imposed travel restrictions after the discovery of a new coronavirus variant in South Africa.
Scientists have expressed concerns that the new strain – identified as B.1.1.529 – could be more resistant to vaccines and could spread more easily.
The Israeli health ministry said on Friday it had detected the country’s first case of the new coronavirus variant in a traveller who returned from Malawi. The traveller 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.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) has cautioned against imposing new travel restrictions.
“WHO recommends that countries continued to apply a risk-based and a scientific approach when implementing travel measures … implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” spokesman Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva on Friday.
The health agency said that it will take a few weeks to determine exactly how transmissible the new variant is.
“Researchers are working to understand more about the mutations and what they potentially mean for how transmissible or virulent this variant is,” Lindmeier said, as WHO experts began a virtual meeting to determine whether B.1.1.529 should be classified as a variant of interest or of concern.
BioNTech assessing vaccine against new strain
Biotech company BioNTech said on Friday it was studying how well the coronavirus vaccine it developed with Pfizer protects against the new variant.
“We expect more data from the laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest. These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally,” a BioNTech spokesperson said.
A total of about 50 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana. The confirmed cases in Botswana and Hong Kong were detected among travellers from South Africa.
Britain announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon (12:00 GMT) on Friday and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test and to quarantine.
Al Jazeera’s Fahmida Miller, reporting from Johannesburg, said “southern African countries depend on tourism and trade” and the new restrictions were crushing hopes ahead of the holiday season.
South Africa recently obtained its removal from a UK red list. “There is certainly concern on the part of the South African government, which said this ban has been rushed,” Miller said.
South Africa will speak to British authorities to try to get them to reconsider their ban, the Foreign Ministry in Pretoria said. “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.
On Saturday, Australia announced curbs for people who had travelled to nine countries in the region, including South Africa, and said non-citizens would not be allowed entry. Returning Australians and their families have to complete a 14-day supervised quarantine on arrival.
“If the medical evidence shows that further actions are required, we will not hesitate to take them. And that may involve strengthening or expanding the restrictions,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said.
Elsewhere in Asia, Malaysia also announced a ban on travel to seven countries in southern Africa – Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe – with citizens already there required to spend 14 days in government-run quarantine on their return. Non-citizens travelling from the seven countries will not be allowed entry.
Like many countries in the Asia Pacific, Australia and Malaysia have maintained strict policies on international travel since the start of the pandemic to try and control the spread of the virus. Singapore, which has been slowly reopening its borders to fully vaccinated travellers, on Friday introduced new restrictions on southern African arrivals.
The 27-nation European Union also said it was considering new restrictions as it battles a fourth spike of the pandemic.
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.”
Italy’s health ministry 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.
The Netherlands is planning similar measures.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said airlines coming back from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home, and travellers 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.