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U.K. bans flights from six African nations as new COVID variant from South Africa triggers alert in Israel, India, others

The United Kingdom (U.K.) has temporarily banned flights from South Africa and five neighboring countries over worries about a new, dramatically different Covid-19 variant recently identified in the region.

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

The travel restrictions go into effect at noon Friday and are a precautionary measure to keep the spread of the new variant in check, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.

The six African countries will be placed on the U.K.’s red list as of Sunday, requiring travelers to quarantine in hotels upon arrival.

Israel has also banned travel from the six countries, along with Mozambique, another neighbor of South Africa, BNO News said in a tweet, without citing the source of the information.

And hours after South African authorities announced they had detected a new variant of the novel coronavirus with a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, the Indian Union Health Ministry on Thursday directed States to rigorously screen and test travellers coming from or transiting through three countries in which the variant had been confirmed — South Africa, Botswana, and Hong Kong.

In a communication to all states and Union Territories, Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said India’s National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has informed the government that “multiple cases of a Covid-19 variant B.1.1529 have been reported in Botswana (3 cases), South Africa (6 cases) and Hong Kong (1 case).”

“This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country, in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel,” Bhushan said.

“lt is therefore imperative that ALL international travellers travelling from and transiting through these countries, (they are part of the “at risk” Country Category of international travellers coming to lndia)…are subjected to rigorous screening and testing”, the communication said. “The contacts of these international travellers must also be closely tracked and tested as per MoHFW guidelines.”

The Hong Kong case is a traveller from South Africa. South African scientists told a news conference on Thursday that the mutations detected in B.1.1529 were “concerning because they could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible”, Reuters said in a report from Johannesburg.

Scientists are still trying to determine whether the new variant, called B.1.1529, is more transmissible or more lethal than previous ones. What’s clear is that it has the most mutations of any strain yet identified. That’s raised concerns inside South Africa and internationally, with authorities fearing a wave of cases that could increase pressure on already strained health-care systems.

“As part of our close surveillance of variants across the world, we have become aware of the spread of a new potentially concerning variant,” Javid said in a statement, adding that the new strain it’s now under investigation.

Scientists in South Africa are studying a new coronavirus variant of concern trib.al/btI51kf
The U.K.’s move is a further blow to the airline industry, which was starting to recover from earlier travel restrictions and lockdowns but now faces fresh curbs and a resurgent virus in parts of Europe. The measures announced Thursday mark the biggest change in the U.K.’s Covid travel rules since the so-called traffic light system was overhauled earlier in the autumn to ease border crossings.

From 500 to 700 people daily arrive in the U.K. via South Africa on flights, a number that would normally be expected to increase in the next four to six weeks due to seasonal travel.

In South Africa, virologists have detected almost 100 cases linked to the new variant to date, according to Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist and head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. No cases have been identified in the U.K., the health department said.

World Health Organization officials have met to discuss the variant, which has also been detected in Botswana, where it’s been found in people who were vaccinated against Covid.

“Armed by our experience and understanding of the alpha and delta variants, we know that early action is far better than late action,” Ewan Birney, deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, said in a Science Media Centre briefing note. “It may turn out that this variant is not as large a threat as alpha and delta, but the potential consequences of not acting on the possibility it could be are serious.”

The new variant probably evolved during a chronic infection of an immuno-compromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient, said Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute. The world’s biggest number of HIV cases has made it more difficult for South Africa to fight the Covid pandemic, because the virus can linger for longer in people whose immune systems are compromised, potentially offering a bigger window for mutations.

WHO experts are meeting Friday with authorities from South Africa, according to U.K. officials. It will take several weeks to see the impact of the new variant on hospitalizations and deaths and to study how it may interact with vaccines.

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