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EU likely to impose travel ban on African countries as WHO classifies new COVID variant as 'highly transmissible'

Many EU member states had already gone ahead with flight suspensions from some or all of the seven African countries. Others were expected to follow suit over coming days.

Published: 26th November 2021 11:30 PM  |   Last Updated: 27th November 2021 12:41 AM   |  A+A-

Shoppers wait at a bus stop, where they will be required to wear masks to curb the spread of coronavirus once the get on a bus. (Photo | AP)

By AFP

BRUSSELS: EU officials holding an emergency meeting over a concerning new Covid variant first detected in southern Africa agreed on Friday to urge all 27 nations in the bloc to restrict travel from that region.

The World Health Organization has declared the recently-discovered B.1.1.529 strain of Covid-19 to be a variant of concern, renaming it Omicron.

"Member States agreed to introduce rapidly restrictions on all travel into the EU from seven countries in the Southern Africa region: Botswana, eSwatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe," European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer tweeted.

The measure was only a recommendation to suspend flights from those African nations. 

"This is not a formal decision but a recommendation. It is up to each member state to take its own decisions," an EU official told AFP.

Many EU member states had already gone ahead with flight suspensions from some or all of the seven African countries. Others were expected to follow suit over coming days.

An EU official told AFP that the diplomats and officials meeting in Brussels under the EU's Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) mechanism opted to emphasise "restrictions" over travel suspensions. 

That is because EU citizens and residents were allowed to return to their home countries -- though will likely face PCR tests and quarantine on arrival.

Non-EU citizens and residents would be barred from travelling into the EU under the agreed recommendation.

The current Slovenian presidency of the European Union tweeted that the IPCR meeting agreed to activate an "emergency brake" allowing member states to rapidly change travel criteria to keep pace with changes brought on by Covid.

The presidency "called upon members to test and quarantine all incoming passengers" in its tweet. 

There was no immediate fuller statement giving details, so it was not clear whether that meant passengers from the seven African countries, or all passengers arriving in the EU regardless of point of origin.

The new COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529, first detected from South Africa, was on Friday designated as a "Variant of Concern" by the World Health Organisation, which named it "omicron".

A "variant of concern" is the WHO's top category of worrying Covid variants.

The WHO said the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assesses if specific mutations and combinations of mutations alter the behaviour of the virus, convened on Friday to assess the B.1.1.529 variant, first reported to the world health body from South Africa on November 24.

Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this "variant should be designated as a Variant of Concern, and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron".

Countries are asked to enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants, submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID and report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infection to WHO through the IHR mechanism.

Countries are also advised that where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, they should perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the VOC on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralisation, or other relevant characteristics.

A jittery world feared the worst nearly two years after COVID-19 emerged and triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe.

"We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment," British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.

There was no immediate indication whether the variant was more transmissible or causes more severe disease.

As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said.

Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear if the new variant would pose a significant public health threat.

Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.

Some nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa, and stocks tumbled in Asia, Europe and the United States.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped more than 1,000 points.

The S&P 500 index was down 2.3%, on pace for its worst day since February.

The price of oil plunged nearly 12%.

"The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems," German Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

The 27-nation European Union, which has experienced a massive spike in cases recently, recommended a ban on flights from southern African nations.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said flights "should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules".

She insisted on extreme caution, warning that "mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months".

Belgium became the first European Union country to announce a case of the variant.

"It's a suspicious variant," Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said.

"We don't know if it's a very dangerous variant."

It has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr Anthony Fauci, the US government's top infectious disease expert.

Abroad, the variant "seems to be spreading at a reasonably rapid rate," he told CNN.

And although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, "we don't know that for sure right now".

Showing how complicated the spread of a variant can be, the Belgian case involved a traveller who returned to Belgium from Egypt on Nov 11 but did not became sick with mild symptoms until Monday, according to professor Marc Van Ranst, who works for the scientific group overseeing the Belgian government's COVID-19 response.

Israel, one of the world's most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it also detected its first case of the new variant in a traveller who returned from Malawi.

The traveller and two other suspected cases were placed in isolation.

Israel said all three were vaccinated, but officials were looking into the travellers' exact vaccination status.

After a 10-hour overnight trip, passengers aboard KLM Flight 598 from Capetown, South Africa, to Amsterdam were held on the edge of the runway Friday morning at Schiphol airport for four hours pending special testing.

Passengers aboard a flight from Johannesburg were also being isolated and tested.

"It's ridiculous. If we didn't catch the dreaded bugger before, we're catching it now," said passenger Francesca de' Medici, a Rome-based art consultant who was on the flight.

Some experts said the variant's emergence illustrated how rich countries' hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.

Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunised against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose.

Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.

"This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point," said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain's University of Southampton.

He urged Group of 20 leaders "to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses".

The new variant added to investor anxiety that months of progress containing COVID-19 could be reversed.

"Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known," said Jeffrey Halley of foreign exchange broker Oanda.

In a sign of how concerned Wall Street has become, the market's so-called fear gauge known as the VIX jumped 48% to a reading of 26.91.

That's the highest reading for the volatility index since January, before vaccines were widely distributed.

Speaking before the EU announcement, Dr Michael Ryan, head of emergencies at the WHO, warned against "knee-jerk responses".

"We've seen in the past, the minute there's any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel," Ryan said.

"It's really important that we remain open and stay focused."

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention agreed and strongly discouraged any travel bans on countries that reported the new variant.

It said past experience shows that such travel bans have "not yielded a meaningful outcome".

The UK banned flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries at noon on Friday and announced that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.

Germany said its flight ban could be enacted as soon as Friday night.

Spahn said flights returning from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home, and travellers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days whether they are vaccinated or not.

Germany has seen record daily case numbers in recent days and on Thursday surpassed 100,000 deaths from COVID-19.

Italy's health ministry announced measures to ban entry for anyone who has been in seven southern African nations, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini, in the past 14 days.

The Netherlands and the Czech Republic planned similar measures.

The Japanese government announced that Japanese nationals traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodations for 10 days and take COVID-19 tests on the third, sixth and tenth days.

Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals.

The South African government said that the UK's decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering "seems to have been rushed", citing the fact that the WHO has yet to recommend next steps.

Fauci said US public health officials were talking Friday with South African colleagues.

"We want to find out scientist to scientist exactly what is going on."

It says coronavirus infections jumped 11% in the past week in Europe, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise.

The WHO's Europe director, Dr Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent measures, the continent could see an additional 700,000 deaths by the spring.

Belgium and the Netherlands are taking new measures Friday in an attempt to keep a COVID-19 spike from spiraling out of control, hoping that action now will safeguard the joys of Christmas next month.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo had to reinforce measures for the second time in a week and closed night clubs, while bars and restaurants have to close at 11 p.m. for the next three weeks.

Spikes in cases and hospital admissions exceeded even the worst medical predictions, forcing Belgium into quick action.

"We have been hoodwinked by the delta variant," he said of the very contagious version of COVID-19.

He said that there were over 25,000 cases a day now in the country of 11 million.

"This is unprecedented in our country."

Neighboring Netherlands has been struggling with the virus just as much.

The Dutch government is expected to announce an expansion of a partial lockdown that has been in place for two weeks amid swiftly rising infections and ICU admissions.

Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte and Health Minister Hugo de Jonge are scheduled to give a televised news conference at 7 p.m. (1800 GMT) to outline new measures.

Bars and restaurants that already have to close their doors at 8 p.m. could be ordered to shut even earlier.

"That we need measures, tough measures, is beyond doubt," De Jonge said Thursday.

He said a panel of experts that advises the government on its coronavirus policies has advised measures that will force a turnaround in the rising line of infections.

"That turnaround won't happen on its own," De Jonge said.

(With Inputs from Agencies)



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