WHO classifies new COVID variant as ‘of concern’

The World Health Organization names new coronavirus variant Omicron and designates it as a ‘variant of concern’.

People with masks walk at a shopping mall in Johannesburg, South Africa [Denis Farrell/AP]

Global authorities have reacted with alarm to a new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa, with the European Union and the United Kingdom among those tightening border controls as researchers sought to find out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant.

Hours after the UK banned flights from South Africa and neighbouring countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) classified the B.1.1.529 strain as a “variant of concern”, saying it may spread more quickly than other forms of the virus.

But the WHO, which dubbed the new variant Omicron after a letter in the Greek alphabet, cautioned against hasty measures, with a South African scientist labelled London’s decision to impose travel curbs a symptom of “vaccine apartheid”.

The WHO has said it would take weeks to determine how effective vaccines were against the variant, which was first identified this week.

This live blog is now closed. Here were Friday’s updates:

US President Biden says not considering new vaccine mandates

US President Joe Biden said his administration was not considering new vaccine mandates.

“We don’t know a lot about the variant except that is of great concern,” Biden told reporters. “I decided that we are going to be cautious.”

Nigeria lifts restrictions on emirates flights

Nigeria has lifted restrictions on Emirates flights, the aviation minister said.

In March, Nigeria suspended Emirates from flying into or out of its territory after the carrier imposed additional COVID-19 test requirements on passengers from the country.

Iran bans travel from Southern Africa

Iran has banned the entry of travellers from South Africa and five neighbouring countries, a top Iranian epidemiology official said.

Iranians arriving from the region will be admitted after testing negative twice for COVID-19, Mohammad Mehdi Gouya, head of Iran’s Center for Disease Control, was quoted as saying by state broadcaster IRIB.

Travellers from South Africa face Dutch quarantine after COVID-19 test: Report

Any travellers from South Africa who test positive for COVID-19 after arriving at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport will be kept in quarantine, the ANP news agency reported, citing local health officials.

Several hundred passengers arriving on the last two flights from South Africa before a travel ban was imposed over worries about a new strain of the virus have been held at the airport for hours. The results of their tests are not yet known.

Novavax testing vaccine that targets new variant

Novavax Inc said it had started working on a version of its COVID-19 vaccine to target the new variant.

The company’s COVID-19 shot contains an actual version of the virus’ spike protein that cannot cause disease but can trigger the immune system. The vaccine developer said it had started developing a spike protein specifically based on the known genetic sequence of the variant, B.1.1.529.

“The initial work will take a few weeks,” a company spokesperson said. Shares of the company closed up nearly 9 percent on Friday.

Biden calls for intellectual property protection waivers on vaccines

Biden called on nations meeting at the World Trade Organization next week to agree to waive intellectual property protections for vaccines.

“The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,” Biden said in a statement.

Canada closes borders to travellers from seven southern African nations

Canada is closing its borders to travellers who have recently been to seven southern African nations to help stop the spread of the new strain, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos told reporters.

The seven nations are: South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Foreign citizens will be banned from Canada if they have been to the seven nations in the last 14 days.

US to impose travel curbs on eight southern African countries

Biden will restrict travel to the United States from eight southern African countries effective Monday.

The restrictions will apply to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi and were being “implemented out of an abundance of caution in light of a new COVID-19 variant circulating in Southern Africa.”

Paris makes mask wearing outdoors mandatory at public gatherings

Paris has made the wearing of face masks outside mandatory again at public gatherings as the COVID-19 infection rate in the French capital soars, police said.

The police prefecture said in a statement that masks will have to be worn for gathering in public spaces, at festivals and spectacles, on markets and when standing in line.

Rwanda reinstates 24-hour quarantine for all foreign visitors

Rwanda will reinstate a mandatory 24-hour quarantine for all visitors arriving from November 28, its health ministry said.

UAE suspends entry for travellers from seven countries

The United Arab Emirates has suspended entry for travellers from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Mozambique starting from November 29, the state news agency reported.

UK PM Johnson tries to reassure South Africa over travel ban

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told South African President Cyril Ramaphosa that he would work to reopen international travel.

“The Prime Minister spoke to President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa this afternoon. They discussed the challenges posed globally by the new COVID-19 variant, and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel,” Johnson’s Downing Street office said.

“The Prime Minister commended South Africa’s rapid genomic sequencing and leadership in transparently sharing scientific data.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told South African President Cyril Ramaphosa that he would work to reopen international travel [File: Alberto Pezzali/AP]

Dutch PM Rutte orders nighttime lockdown to fight COVID-19 surge

Dutch Prime Minster Mark Rutte said bars, restaurants and most stores in the Netherlands must close from 5 pm (04:00GMT) to 5 am as part of a new set of measures to prevent the country’s current record-breaking COVID-19 from overwhelming hospitals.

The measures, which also include wearing masks in secondary schools, go into effect from November 28, Rutte announced at a televised press conference in The Hague.

WHO declares new coronavirus strain ‘variant of concern’

The WHO designated the new strain as a variant “of concern,” the fifth variant to be given the designation.

The organisation said in a statement that it had assigned the B.1.1.529 variant the Greek letter Omicron.

South African official says WHO will designate variant as “of concern”

A senior South African health official said he had been told that the WHO would designate the new COVID-19 variant as a variant “of concern”.

“We are busy trying to get some information behind the scenes about what was discussed at the WHO meeting today. Earlier in the day I just got a message to say that they were going to promote this variant to a ‘variant of concern’,” Nicholas Crisp, acting director general in the health department, told a media briefing.

UK COVID genomics head says new variant likely to come to UK

It is likely that the new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529, will end up in the UK, the head of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium said.

“(B.1.1.529 is) something that I would guess is likely to be transmitted into the UK at some point, but it buys that time,” COG-UK Chair Sharon Peacock told reporters.

A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa in reaction to news of a new COVID-19 variant that has been detected in South Africa [Jerome Delay/AP]

AstraZeneca hopeful its antibody cocktail will work on new variant

AstraZeneca said it was hopeful its antibody cocktail against COVID-19 would retain efficacy against the new variant, and was also examining whether the variant was resistant to its vaccine.

“As with any new emerging variants, we are looking into B.1.1.529 to understand more about it and the impact on the vaccine,” AstraZeneca said in a statement, adding it was conducting research in Botswana and Eswatini to collect data.

Saudi Arabia suspends flights with seven countries: Report

Saudi Arabia suspended flights to and from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini due to concerns related to the spread of COVID-19, the state news agency (SPA) reported.

Brazil’s Bolsonaro dismisses call for COVID travel curbs

Brazil’s health regulator recommended curbs on travel from some African countries, but President Jair Bolsonaro appeared to dismiss such measures.

Regulator Anvisa said its recommendation, which would need government approval to be implemented, was to immediately suspend flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Read more here.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said new travel restrictions on some African countries would not be effective because the ‘virus is already here’ [File: Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters]

Swiss gov’t bans travel from southern Africa

The Swiss government banned direct flights from South Africa and the surrounding region while also imposing restrictions on travel from other countries including Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.

All flights from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa were banned for an indefinite period.

Guatemala to restrict southern African travelers

Guatemala will impose restrictions on visitors from some south African nations, President Alejandro Giammattei said.

“Yesterday we received the report of a new variant, for which we have already given the order for restrictions of people coming from those countries, which is not many,” the president told media.

Guatemala would limit entry to travelers from Lesotho, Mozambique and South Africa, the president said, although the Guatemalan Immigration Institute said it is still waiting to receive the presidential order.

Morocco bans travellers from seven southern African states

Morocco banned entry to travellers arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Zimbabwe due to concerns related to the spread of the new strain.

EU states agree to suspend travel to southern Africa

European Union states agreed to suspend temporarily travel to southern Africa after the detection of a new COVID-19 variant, the presidency of the EU said.

A committee of health experts from all 27 EU states “agreed on the need to activate the emergency break,” the Slovenian presidency of the EU said on Twitter.

Dr Amesh Adalja: ‘Not appropriate response’

Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said travel bans are not the best response to this situation.

“First of all, we know that travel restrictions do very little to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Adalja told Al Jazeera.

“Number two, it penalises countries like South Africa for being open and sharing this data.

“And number three, we are two years into this pandemic, we know how to stop the spread… we have the ability to test people, to not use travel bans as the reflex way of dealing with this variant. [So] I think this is a bad precedent, and hopefully, more countries do not follow this bad example,” he added.

People lineup to get in Johannesburg’s airport [Jerome Delay/AP]

OPEC+ monitoring new virus variant

OPEC+ is monitoring developments around the new strain, sources said, with some expressing concern that it may worsen the oil market outlook less than a week before a meeting to set policy.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies, known as OPEC+, is already facing a release of oil stocks led by the US to try to cool prices. Still, a source said Russia, a key OPEC+ member, was not concerned about the virus variant yet.

Oksana Pyzik: Not a surprise

Pyzik, a teaching fellow at University College London’s School of Pharmacy said the new variant “shouldn’t come as a surprise.”

“The World Health Organization has been warning us repeatedly … since the beginning of the pandemic, that if vaccine inequity continue[s].. that inevitably will lead towards a more fit virus, a potentially vaccine resistant virus,” Pyzik told Al Jazeera.

“So we look across the entire African continent, there’s less than 3.5 percent uptake of vaccines at the moment and that has been due to a supply issue,” she added.

“So only focusing on high income regions has been a short term … view of the issue.”

South African health minister says travel bans “unjustified”

South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said that preliminary studies suggest that the new strain detected in his country may be more transmissible, but the decision of other countries to impose travel restrictions is “unjustified”.

Phaahla told a media briefing that South Africa was acting with transparency, and that travel bans contravened the norms and standards of the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Helen Rees: ‘Alarmist language … isn’t helpful’

Rees, chair of the WHO’s African Regional Immunization Technical Advisory Group, said scientists still don’t know enough about this variant to start sounding the alarm.

“The fact that we are able to identify changes quickly is good news. It’s good news for the world. But we must be careful that we don’t then jump [to] conclusion[s]. We need to understand much more about this,” Rees told Al Jazeera from Johannesburg.

Rees said it’s the scientists’ responsibility to use cautious language.

“We are still understanding this. There are many more mutations that seem to have had a big leap from the kinds of variants that we’ve seen before … but I think using alarmist language if you’re a scientist isn’t helpful,” she added.

Belgium detects first case of new strain in Europe

Belgium has detected Europe’s first confirmed case of the new variant of COVID-19, and it announced measures aimed at curbing a rapidly spreading fourth wave of coronavirus infections.

Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke told a news conference that a case of variant B.1.1.529 had been found in an unvaccinated person who had developed symptoms and tested positive on November 22.

“It is a suspicious variant. We do not know if it is a very dangerous variant,” he said.

US stocks fall sharply on new strain

US stocks fell sharply as the new strain seemed to be spreading across the globe, threatening months of progress at getting the pandemic under control.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 900 points in the first 20 minutes of trading to trade at 34,917. The S&P 500 index was down 1.7 percent, on pace for its worst day since late September. The Nasdaq Composite was down 1.1 percent.

Stock trading the Friday after Thanksgiving is typically the slowest day of the year, with the market closing early [File: Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

Read more here.

Travel bans frustrate travelers

Travel bans imposed on South Africa have driven some people to rush to the airport with many expressing their frustration.

“It’s a big inconvenience.” Rodger Upton, a British tourist in Johannesburg, told Al Jazeera.

“We had our flights booked for a week. We got the news from our daughter in the UK last night saying the UK was going to introduce a red list,” he added.

Gloria Ndoro, a South African living in the UK, said the measure was “unfair.”

“It’s unjustified. It’s abrupt,” Ndoro told Al Jazeera.

“And it’s not good for tourism for South Africa. Ever since these regulations were passed last night, people are frantically trying to get back into the UK,” she added.

Italy imposes entry ban on eight southern African states

Italy imposed an entry ban on people who have visited any one of eight southern African states in the last 14 days.

Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza signed an executive order banning entry from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini.

“Our scientists are studying the new B.1.1.529 variant. In the meantime, we will adopt the greatest possible caution,” Speranza said.

Shanghai curbs tourism over new COVID-19 cases

A handful of local COVID-19 cases in eastern parts of China have prompted Shanghai city to limit tourism activities and a nearby city to cut public transport services, as China insists on zero-tolerance against letting clusters spread.

Shanghai city detected three domestically transmitted COVID-19 cases with confirmed symptoms on November 25, official data from the National Health Commission (NHC) showed. The last local symptomatic infection in Shanghai was reported in August.

The new infections came just days after China contained its biggest outbreak caused by the Delta variant.

Israel bans arrivals from most African countries

Israel imposed a travel ban on most African states, after reporting cases of the new coronavirus strain.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett widened a ban announced on Thursday on the entry of foreigners from seven African countries and travel to them.

“We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency, ” he said, adding that the B.1.1.529 variant had “arrived at a very complicated time”, coinciding with the Hanukkah vacation when children, mostly unvaccinated, are out of school.

Morocco bans travellers from South Africa

Morocco banned entry to travellers arriving from South Africa due to concerns related to the new strain, the foreign ministry said in a tweet on Friday.

South Africa sport shutting down over new variant

South African sport began to shut down after the detection of the new strain in the country, with the imposition of travel bans forcing rugby teams and golfers to scramble to try and leave.

Four rugby teams were due to play South African opposition in the United Rugby Championship (URC), but matches on Saturday and Sunday have been postponed with Welsh clubs Cardiff and Scarlets looking to leave before travellers from southern Africa are forced to quarantine on their return to the UK .

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies