A number of countries – including Britain, Israel, Italy and Singapore – moved on Friday to restrict travel from South Africa and other countries in the region, a day after South African authorities identified a worrying new coronavirus variant with mutations, which a scientist said marked a “great leap in development.”
In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants. This time, restrictions came within hours of South Africa’s announcement – and hours before health officials from the country were to discuss the variant with the World Health Organization.
Britain, France and Israel on Thursday announced a ban on flights from South Africa and several neighboring countries, citing the threat from the new variant. The UK’s flight ban applies to six countries – South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe – and begins at noon local time on Friday.
“More data is needed, but we are taking precautions now,” said Sajid Javid, the British Minister for Health. said on Twitter.
Italian Governments, Malta, Netherlands, Japan and Singapore announced on Friday that they would impose similar restrictions. Markets were down in Japan in response to the variant’s discovery, and officials in Australia and New Zealand said they were monitoring it closely.
“Our scientists are working to study the new B.1.1.529 variant,” Italy’s health minister Roberto Speranza said in a statement, using the variant’s scientific name. “In the meantime, we’re wrong on the side of caution.”
Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Union’s executive arm, also said in a Twitter post on Friday morning that it would propose restricting flights to European countries from southern Africa due to concerns over the variant.
In the last two days, researchers have discovered the variant after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub around Johannesburg. So far, only a few dozen cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel and Botswana.
A number of variants have emerged since the beginning of the pandemic. An underlying concern about them is whether they want to slow down the fight against the virus or limit the effectiveness of vaccines. South African scientists will meet with the World Health Organization’s technical team on Friday to discuss the new variant, and authorities will assign it a letter in the Greek alphabet.
In a statement published on a government website on Friday, South Africa said it would urge Britain to reconsider its travel restrictions, saying: “The UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK appears to be urgent, as even The World Health Organization has not yet advised on the next steps. “
Last December, South Africa was the first nation to report the appearance of the Beta variant, which has now spread to nearly 70 countries. Researchers have been concerned that some clinical trials have shown that vaccines provide less protection against the Beta variant. Since then, the more virulent and aggressive Delta variant has spread around the world and is believed to be nourishing for the recent rise in cases.
With over 1,200 new infections, South Africa’s daily infection rate is much lower than in Germany, where new cases are driving a wave. But the density of mutations on this new variant raises fears that it could be highly contagious, prompting scientists to sound the alarm early.
“This variant surprised us – it has a big leap in development, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very serious third wave of Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
Emma Bubola and John Yoon contributed with reporting.
Researchers are still unclear about how effective vaccines will be against the new variant marked by a team in South Africa, which shows mutations that can resist neutralization. Only several dozen cases have been fully identified so far in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
The new variant, B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” with more than 30 in the tip protein alone, according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
At the ACE2 receptor – the protein that helps create a starting point for coronavirus to infect human cells – the new variant has 10 mutations. In comparison, the Beta variant has three and the Delta variant two, said Mr. of Oliveira.
The variant shares similarities with the Lambda and Beta variants, which are associated with an innate evasion of immunity, said Richard Lessells, a specialist in infectious diseases at the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.
“All of these things are what give us some concern that this variant may not only have improved transmission so that it spreads more efficiently, but may also get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system. , “Dr. Lessells said.
The new variant has largely been discovered among young people, the vintage that also has the lowest vaccination rate in South Africa. Just over a quarter of those aged between 18 and 34 in South Africa are vaccinated, said Dr. Joe Phaahla, the country’s health minister.
While cases of the variant are mainly concentrated in the country’s economic center, especially in the country’s administrative capital, Pretoria, it is “only a matter of time” before the virus spreads across the country when schools close and families prepare to travel to holiday season, said Dr. Phaahla.
The Hong Kong government said on Thursday it had discovered two cases of a new variant identified in South Africa, which scientists have warned show a “big leap in evolution” and could limit the effectiveness of vaccines.
The infections were discovered in a man who had returned to Hong Kong from South Africa this month, and later in another man who was staying on the other side of the hall in the same quarantine hotel. (Hong Kong requires that almost all overseas arrivals quarantine hotels for two to three weeks.) The genetic sequence of the virus was identical in both men, suggesting airborne transmission, according to the city’s Center for Health Protection. Both men were vaccinated.
Further sequencing from the University of Hong Kong confirmed that viruses belonged to the new variant from South Africa, officials said, although they acknowledged that information on the variant’s public health impact was “currently lacking.”
Some Hong Kong experts have questioned the length and effectiveness of Hong Kong’s quarantines, noting that officials have registered several cases of residents in quarantine hotels that have apparently infected people staying in other rooms.
In the case of recent variants of infections, the government has blamed the first man for not wearing a surgical mask when he opened his hotel room door, as well as “unsatisfactory airflow” at the hotel. By Friday afternoon, there had been no reports of infections in nearby premises.
The presence of the new variant could complicate efforts to reopen the border between Hong Kong and mainland China. For months, Hong Kong officials have said that the resumption of quarantine-free travel between Chinese territory and the mainland – largely the only places in the world still pursuing an containment strategy seeking full eradication of the virus – is their top priority, even if they have that strategy. damaged the city’s reputation as a global financial center.
Mainland officials have said Hong Kong is not doing enough to control the virus, even though the city has only registered two locally transmitted cases in the past six months. The mainland has recently faced new domestic eruptions; Thursday, the National Health Commission there reported four new local cases.
On Thursday night, Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, John Lee, said mainland officials had told him earlier in the day that Hong Kong had “basically met” the conditions for reopening the border. He said the details still needed to be worked out, including the introduction of a mainland-style “health code” app that has raised concerns about privacy.
Asked by a journalist if the new variant would delay the reopening with the mainland, Mr. Lee only that the Hong Kong authorities would “ensure that adequate research and tracking is carried out in this regard.”
“Of course we have to manage and control all new risks,” he said.
Nearly 20 months after pandemic lockdowns first began, governments across Europe are beginning to tighten restrictions again amid the latest wave of new coronavirus cases, threatening the region’s progress towards the pandemic.
France is racing to offer booster shots to all adults and will not renew health passes for those who refuse. Deaths are rising in Germany with a vaccination rate of 68 percent, which is a worrying trend for a heavily inoculated country. Austria has been in a nationwide lockdown since Monday, making vaccinations mandatory.
In Eastern Europe, where right-wing extremist and populist groups have fueled vaccine skepticism, vaccination rates are lower than in the rest of the continent. Bulgaria, where a quarter of the population is fully vaccinated, is returning to shutdowns or other restrictive measures.
The rapidly deteriorating situation in Europe is worrying for the United States, where the seven-day average of new cases has risen by 24 percent in the past two weeks. (The number of new deaths reported in the US has dropped 6 percent.) Trends in new cases in the US have tended to follow Europe by a few weeks.
“We have seen time and time again how the dynamics of infection in Europe are reflected here several weeks later,” Carissa F. Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, told reporters on Wednesday. “The future unfolds before us, and it must be a wake-up call for our region because we are even more vulnerable.”
The White House insists that while new infections are on the rise, the United States can avoid European-style lockdowns.
“We’re not heading in that direction,” White House coronavirus response coordinator Jeff Zients said this week. “We have the tools to accelerate the way out of this pandemic: widely available vaccinations, booster shots, child shots, therapeutic agents.”
But the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said some countries had succumbed to a “false sense of security.”
He issued a warning during a news briefing on Wednesday: “While Europe is once again the epicenter of the pandemic, no country or region is out of the woods.”