LONDON – Countries around the world rushed to identify potential cases and stop travel from southern Africa on Friday, where a new variant of Covid-19 has emerged as a sudden source of global alarm.
The World Health Organization (WHO) convened an emergency meeting to evaluate the variant, currently identified as B.1.1.529.
Scientists are still studying the variant, which was first identified earlier this week, but its worrying nature has led to rapid developments.
The UK announced Thursday evening it was adding six African countries to its red list, banning all direct flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
They were joined by Israel, while the President of the Commission of the European Union, Ursula von der Leyen tweeted Friday that the 27-member bloc, already grappling with its own Covid crisis, was going propose the continuation. Singapore, Japan and Croatia have also said they will restrict travel from the region, according to Reuters.
The UK Health Safety Agency has said it is investigating variant B.1.1.529, which it says includes a large number of mutations that could alter its behavior with regard to vaccines, treatments and transmissibility .
“This is the most significant variant that we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and sensitivity to the vaccine,” said Dr Jenny Harries, director General of the UK Health Security Agency. “It is a clear reminder to everyone that this pandemic is not over.”
The variant was found earlier this week and has been found in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, according to the agency. But the extent of the spread has not yet been determined, he added.
Israel also said it identified a case of the new variant in a traveler returning from Malawi. The country’s health ministry said two more suspected cases had been placed in isolation. “We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency,” warned Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. “Our main principle is to act fast, strong and now.”
WHO said in an email statement on Friday that it was convening a meeting of its technical advisory group on virus evolution to better understand the schedule of ongoing studies on the variant and to determine whether it should be nominated. as “variant of interest” or “variant of concern.”
Maria Van Kerkhove, a infectious disease epidemiologist and COVID-19 technical manager at the World Health Organization noted Thursday that if he was nominated, he would receive a Greek name.
“We don’t know much about it yet, what we do know is that this variant has a lot of mutations,” Van Kerkhove said in a video Thursday. “The problem is, when you have that many mutations, it can impact the behavior of the virus.”
But Van Kerkhove said it was good the mutations were detected, as it meant there was a system in place.
The organization warned that it would take a few weeks to understand the impact of this variant.
Vivi vitalone contributed.