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EU, Israel, Singapore impose travel restriction on South Africa over new coronavirus variant

The ultrastructural morphology exhibited by the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV), which was identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness first detected in Wuhan, China, is seen in an illustration released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. January 29, 2020. Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM/CDC/Handout via REUTERS

EU, Israel and Singapore have imposed travel restrictions on South Africa following the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant in the country.

This is coming hours after the UK imposed travel restrictions on six African countries including South Africa.

A new variant of the coronavirus, B.1.1.529, was discovered in South Africa three days ago and 59 cases have been confirmed in South Africa, Hong Kong, and Botswana.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the EU Commission, tweeted Friday that “the @EU_Commission will propose, in close coordination with the 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.”

Also, German health minister Jens Spahn tweeted Friday morning that “Germany will, among other things, declare South Africa a virus variant area.”

He said effective tonight, airlines from South Africa will only be allowed to carry Germans to Germany, while there will be 14 days quarantine for all those arriving, including those already vaccinated.

“We remain cautious when entering the country. The newly discovered variant #B11529 worries us, so we act proactively and early here. The last thing we need now is an introduced new variant causing even more problems,” he said.

Israel will also be stopping entry from the countries, as well as Mozambique. Returning Israelis will be required to quarantine.

Israel also identified a case of a Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations first detected in South Africa, the health ministry said Friday.

“The variant discovered in southern African states has been identified in Israel,” the health ministry said, adding that it was recorded “in a person who returned from Malawi,” with “two more cases of people returning from abroad” placed in quarantine.

Similarly, Singapore will from Sunday restrict travels from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe.

All non-Singaporeans and people without permanent residency in the city-state who have recent travel history to the seven countries will be barred from entering or transiting through Singapore, the health ministry said.

Singapore currently has no cases of the new variant, but officials are seeking to “take the necessary precautions to reduce the risks” of it spreading to the country, the ministry said.

The Indian health ministry has issued an alert for the new variant. It has, however, not suspended travel from southern Africa, according to India Today.

“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,” Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said.

As a result, all international travellers coming to India from “at-risk” countries must be subjected to rigorous screening and testing, the ministry said.

Meanwhile, Japan has followed a similar path, opting to tighten its border controls for visitors from southern Africa.

Most African countries including Nigeria have yet to impose travel restrictions on South Africa or any of the southern African countries.

Experts have said that the B.1.1.529 variant could be the most lethal and worrying yet. This is because of its “awful spike mutation profile”, which scientists fear could help it evade immunity. Early reports suggest it is capable of reducing vaccine efficiency to just 30 per cent.

According to the WHO COVID-19 technical lead Maria Kerkhove, it would still take a few weeks to determine whether it should be identified as a “variant of interest” or a “variant of concern.”

“Everybody that’s out there needs to understand that the more this virus circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to change, the more mutations we will see,” Ms Kerkhove said.

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