European countries agreed Friday to restrict Southern Africa travel, citing concerns over a new coronavirus strain detected there that the World Health Organization designated as a “variant of concern.”
The global health body said the new strain, which it named “Omicron,” appeared to be more contagious than earlier versions — able to evade the immunity gained through vaccination or prior infection.
Seeking to head off the threat of a new wave of more dangerous infections at a time when the continent is already reeling from a record-breaking wave, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen earlier called for the bloc to trigger a so-called emergency brake mechanism to stop air travel from the region.
EU countries should act “very swiftly, decisively and united,” von der Leyen said in a statement Friday afternoon. “All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed about this new variant and travelers returning from these regions should respect strict quarantine rules,” she added.
The emergency brake mechanism allows EU countries to halt travel — including for vaccinated people — if the epidemiological situation in a non-EU country goes downhill due to a concerning variant.
The decision to activate the mechanism was taken at a meeting of EU ambassadors in the integrated political crisis response committee — which allows EU countries to coordinate during crises.
The conclusions of the meeting, seen by POLITICO, state that “participants agree on the need for the Member States to activate the emergency brake” and that it was necessary to “urgently impose temporary restrictions on all travel into the EU from the Southern Africa region,” which includes Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.
However, in a sign that travel bans may prove futile, Belgium has already confirmed one case of the new variant.
The variant was first detected by genomic sequencing in South Africa and shared with an international database on November 22. Though data regarding the virulence and ability of the virus to sidestep immune protection is still scarce, scientists are worried both by the presence of a number of genetic mutations in the critical spike protein — the area of that most vaccines target — as well as its apparently rapid spread.
A WHO advisory group said that the early evidence pointed to an "increased risk of reinfection" compared with other variants, including the dominant Delta variant.
Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Spain, Malta, the Czech Republic and Greece have already announced travel restrictions to the region. That follows Thursday night's decision by U.K. authorities to introduce new curbs on travel for six African countries, including South Africa.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that from Friday night, "airlines are only allowed to transport Germans to Germany, moreover a 14-day quarantine is mandatory for everyone, including the vaccinated.”
The Netherlands has also implemented a ban on flights from the region from noon Friday — a move that’s trapped passengers on two planes from South Africa at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam until they’re tested.
“While my flight from Jo'burg was somewhere over Chad, Europe went into variant panic; by the time we landed, we weren't allowed off the plane,” tweeted Stephanie Nolen, a global health reporter at the New York Times.
Africa’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said it “strongly discourages” travel bans on visitors arriving from the countries that had reported the variant. As of Thursday it had detected 77 cases in South Africa, 4 in Botswana and 1 in Hong Kong.
Most of the cases are in Southern Africa, where the density of mutations on the new variant — expected to renamed "Nu" — has raised fears it may be more contagious and better at evading vaccine immunity than previous variants.
Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, estimates that at least 1,000 new COVID-19 cases a day in the country belong to the “Omicron” variant, as it outstrips Delta.
A travel ban will hopefully slow the variant’s advance, but is unlikely to stop it entirely, Marc Van Ranst, a Belgian virologist said, adding: "The sober fact is that this variant is probably already present in Europe to a very limited extent.”
For now at least, there were no cases of the variant in the U.K., said British Health Secretary Sajid Javid speaking to parliament on Friday.
Jenny Harries, chief executive of the U.K. Health Security Agency called it the “most significant variant” encountered to date.
Lukas Kotkamp, Cornelius Hirsch, Sarah Wheaton and Nektaria Stamouli contributed reporting.
This story has been updated.
Source : https://www.politico.eu/article/von-der-leyen-commission-to-propose-southern-africa-travel-shutdown-over-new-coronavirus-variant/988