The World Health Organization is meeting on Friday to discuss what an alarming coronavirus variant with a “large number of mutations” could mean for COVID-19 vaccines and treatments as European countries began banning flights from South Africa and surrounding nations.
The variant known as B.1.1.529 was discovered in a small number in Johannesburg, South Africa and nearby nations, but the globe has been burned by variants before, especially the delta, and cannot afford a setback in the pandemic battle.
“We do not know much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves, ”said Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical director for COVID-19, in a social media Q&A.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation in Africa, said in a news briefing on Thursday that the variant has “many more mutations than we expected,” including more than 30 in the tip protein that the virus uses to hack into in human cells.
He said it was “spreading very fast and we expect to see pressure in the healthcare system in the next few days and weeks.”
The WHO will determine whether the mutations constitute a variant of interest or concern, and possibly assign it a Greek name.
Other countries said they would not take any chances in the meantime.
The European Commission “will propose, in close coordination with the Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop flights from the South African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529,” tweeted Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Friday.
Europe is struggling with yet another wave of the virus and protesting against economic restrictions.
British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said flights from six African countries – South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Namibia, Eswatini and Zimbabwe – would be temporarily banned from Friday noon, and returning British travelers should be quarantined.
The South African government on Friday criticized the decision.
“The UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK appears to be urgent, as even the World Health Organization has yet to advise on the next steps,” the Minister of International Relations and Cooperation said.
Mr. Javid acknowledged that not much is known about the variant, but said they could not risk anything.
“More data is needed, but we are taking precautions now,” he tweeted.
An aggressive variant known as “beta” appeared in South Africa earlier in the pandemic and spread throughout the world. Then the delta variant, first discovered in India, swept around the world, causing a major setback in the United States’ fight against the virus in late summer.
For more information, visit the Washington Times COVID-19 Resource Page.