A number of countries – including Britain, Israel, Italy and Singapore – on Friday decided to restrict travel from South Africa and other countries in the region, a day after southern authorities -African women have identified a worrying new variant of the coronavirus with mutations that a scientist said marked a “big leap in evolution.”
In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variations. This time, the restrictions came hours after South Africa’s announcement – and hours before the country’s health officials discussed the variant with the World Health Organization.
Britain and Israel on Thursday announced a ban on flights from South Africa and several neighboring countries, citing the threat of the new variant. The UK flight ban applies to six countries – South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe – and begins Friday at noon local time.
“More data is needed, but we are taking precautions now”, Sajid Javid, the UK Health Secretary, said on twitter.
Italian governments, Malta and Singapore announced on Friday that they would impose similar restrictions. Markets were down in Japan in response to the discovery of the variant, and authorities in Australia and New Zealand said they were watching it closely.
“Our scientists are at work to study the new B.1.1.529 variant,” Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said in a statement, using the scientific name of the variant. “In the meantime, we err on the side of caution.”
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the EU Executive, also said in a Twitter post on Friday morning that she would propose restricting air travel to European countries from southern Africa due to concerns about the variant.
In the past two days, scientists have detected the variant after observing an increase in infections in the South African economic center surrounding Johannesburg. So far, only a few dozen cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel and Botswana.
A number of variations have appeared since the start of the pandemic. An underlying concern about them is whether they will hinder 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 from the Greek alphabet.
In a statement posted to 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 entering the UK appear to have been rushed, as even the Global Health organization has yet to give advice on next steps.
In December of last year, South Africa was the first country to report the appearance of the beta variant, which has now spread to nearly 70 countries. Scientists have expressed concern that some clinical trials have shown that vaccines offer less protection against the beta variant. Since then, the most virulent and aggressive Delta variant has spread around the world and is believed to be behind the latest wave of cases.
With more than 1,200 new infections, South Africa’s daily infection rate is far lower than that of Germany, where new cases are causing a wave. However, the density of mutations on this new variant raises concerns that it is highly contagious, leading scientists to sound the alarm bells early.
“This variant surprised us – it has a big evolutionary leap, a lot more mutations than expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the sequencing platform at research and innovation from KwaZulu-Natal.
Emma Bubola and John yoon contributed reports.