The EU and UK moved to impose travel restrictions on a group of southern African nations as a surge in cases of a heavily mutated coronavirus variant caused alarm among global health officials.
After the UK placed six southern African countries back on its red list, the EU said on Friday that it was also likely to ban travellers from the region after the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant.
Travellers returning from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini will be forced to quarantine for 10 days at a government facility from midday on Friday, UK officials said. Direct flights from the six countries would be banned from midday on Friday until hotel quarantine is up and running from 4am on Sunday.
“The @EU_Commission will propose, in close co-ordination with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B. 1.1.529,” Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, tweeted on Friday.
The bans follow mounting concern among scientists over the B. 1.1.529 Sars-Cov-2 variant’s ability to evade vaccines and transmit faster than the Delta variant. The strain, first identified in Botswana and which is understood to have 50 mutations, is believed to be behind a resurgence in Covid-19 cases in South Africa over the past week.
The World Health Organization has convened an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the new strain. The variant is expected to be classified as a “variant of interest” and given the Greek alphabet name Nu, according to a person familiar with the matter.
Hong Kong said it had recorded two cases of the B. 1.1.529 variant following genome sequencing analysis. They were a traveller who arrived from South Africa this month and another from Canada who had stayed on the same floor of a quarantine hotel. Authorities ordered 12 other guests who stayed on the same floor to undergo an extra two weeks of compulsory quarantine at a government facility.
Israel and Singapore have imposed restrictions on travellers coming from southern Africa. One case detected in Israel stemmed from a traveller returning from Malawi and health officials have discovered two other suspected cases of the strain but await results from genomic sequencing, the Jerusalem Post reported.
South Africa’s foreign ministry on Friday accused the UK of rushing to ban travel before the new variant was properly assessed.
“Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps,” the ministry said in a statement.
“Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” Naledi Pandor, the South African foreign minister, added.
The variant has been described as the most concerning coronavirus variant that researchers have encountered. Unconfirmed data appear to show it is spreading faster than thought in South Africa, where the rate of tests yielding a positive result has jumped in recent weeks.
At least 59 cases of the variant, mainly originating in South Africa, have been genomically sequenced. But local health officials told the Financial Times that early PCR results indicated that 90 per cent of 1,100 new cases on Wednesday in the South African region of Gauteng, which includes Johannesburg, were caused by the new variant.
Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, “worried” over traits present in the new variant that had previously been associated with high transmissibility. “And the key question to be answered is what exactly is the effect on the vaccines,” he added. Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist of the WHO, said the new variant had “a number of worrying mutations in the spike protein”.
Jenny Harries, UKHSA chief executive, described it as “the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is under way to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine susceptibility.”
It was “a clear reminder to everyone that this pandemic is not over”, she added.
Christina Pagel, a member of the UK’s Independent Sage group of science advisers, welcomed the travel ban. “We’re currently ahead of [this variant] in the UK,” she said. “Acting now is our best chance of preventing importation while we find out more about it.”
South Africa and other countries in the region only came off the UK’s red list in October. Travel restrictions were first imposed on the region at the start of the year over the Beta variant, which was superseded by Delta.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne and Philip Georgiadis in London, Hudson Lockett and Chan Ho-him in Hong Kong, Leo Lewis in Tokyo and Joseph Cotterill in Johannesburg