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European and Asian countries are suspending flights to southern Africa

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A South African Airways (SAA) employee guides passengers at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg.

EMMANUEL CROSET | AFP | Getty Images

A number of European and Asian nations have suspended flights from southern Africa after authorities announced that a new variant of the coronavirus had been found.

The UK announced on Thursday that it is temporarily suspending flights from six countries. The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, also said Friday that all 27 member states should stop entering the bloc from southern Africa.

France and Italy are among the EU countries that have already reacted with a temporary travel ban for southern Africa.

Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza said scientists are investigating the new variant, but “in the meantime, we will exercise the greatest possible caution,” a translation by Reuters said.

In Asia, too, Singapore bans entry from the region and Japan tightened border controls for those coming from southern Africa. India is stepping up tests for international travelers.

A variant in question

The World Health Organization has called a special meeting for Friday to further investigate the variant, which has been detected in small numbers in South Africa and is known as B.1.1.529.

Experts have already warned that the new variant could be problematic as it is more transmissible due to its genetic makeup.

Pasi Penttinen, a public health emergency manager at the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, told CNBC on Friday that “this particular variant appears to have mutations of very high concern, particularly in the spike protein, which is needed for its transmission properties as well as its protection from the vaccines. “

“So based on the genetic information, we’re pretty concerned,” he said.

South African officials have said the decision to ban flights is premature. However, British officials stated the need to proceed cautiously.

“More data is needed, but we are taking precautions now. From noon tomorrow, six African countries will be placed on the Red List, flights will be temporarily banned and British travelers will have to be quarantined,” said British Health Minister Sajid Javid on Thursday.

In addition to South Africa, the countries Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana are also covered by the new restrictions.

The variant has spread rapidly in the province of Gauteng, in which South Africa’s largest city Johannesburg is located.

The variant has also been detected in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

“We don’t know much about it yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. “Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical director on Covid-19, said in a question and answer session that was broadcast live on the organization’s social media channels on Thursday.

Covid cases in Europe

The newly discovered variant is arriving as infection rates remain high in countries around the world. In Europe, Austria and Italy have announced new restrictions in the last few days to slow down the spread of the older Delta variant.

The WHO recently warned that the situation in Europe was “very serious”.

There is also ongoing pressure to get more Europeans to get vaccinated. The EU vaccination average is 68%, but this figure hides the differences between Member States. Portugal and Spain have vaccination rates over 80%, but Austria and Germany, for example, only vaccinated about 67% of their population.

Countries have been using flight restrictions as a tool to slow the spread of Covid since the early days of the pandemic. The US lifted its travel bans from 33 countries, including the UK, earlier this month.

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