Updated 5 hours ago
THE UK IS to suspend flights from six African countries due to growing concerns over a new Covid-19 variant.
Britain’s Health Secretary Sajid Javid has announced that all flights would be suspended from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana from 12pm tomorrow.
The six countries will also be placed on a travel ‘red’ list.
These rules also apply to Northern Ireland. Its Chief Medical Officer Prof Michael McBridethat it would liaise with colleagues in Ireland and Great Britain in relation to these measures, which will be kept under review.
Ireland’s Department of Health said this evening that it is aware of measures taken by the UK Government, including the suspension of flights from six African countries.
“No cases of this variant have been reported in Europe to date, but the Minister for Health [Stephen Donnelly] is deeply concerned,” the statement said, adding that Ireland was liaising with Northern Ireland and UK authorities.
“The Department’s advice to the Minister will continue to be informed by relevant guidance emanating from the ECDC and the WHO,” the statement added.
The World Health Organization (WHO) is meeting tomorrow to further assess the significance of this variant, and decide if it is either of “interest” or of “concern”.
“Early analysis shows that this variant has a large number of mutations that require and will undergo further study,” the WHO said.
The new travel restrictions come as scientists in South Africa have detected a new Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations, attributing it as the driver of a surge in infection numbers.
COVID-19 UPDATE:is investigating a new variant. More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now.
From noon tomorrow six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned, and UK travellers must quarantine.
— Sajid Javid (@sajidjavid)
While no cases have been found in Britain, officials raised concern over a rapid rise in cases in South Africa.
Anyone who has arrived from the country in the last 10 days will be invited to come forward and take a test by the UK Health Security Agency.
At the moment, around 500 and 700 people are travelling to the UK from South Africa each day, but it is expected this figure could increase as the festive period begins.
“This is the worst variant we have seen so far,” a senior UK health official told PA News.
The number of daily infections in Africa’s hardest-hit country has increased tenfold since the start of the month.
“Unfortunately we have detected a new variant which is a reason for concern in South Africa,” virologist Tulio de Oliveira told a hastily-called news conference.
The variant, which goes by the scientific lineage number B.1.1.529, “has a very high number of mutations,” he said, expressing hope that the World Health Organization will give it a Greek name tomorrow.
“It’s unfortunately causing a resurgence of infections,” he said.
The variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa, he added.
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the variant was of “serious concern” and behind an “exponential” increase in reported cases, making it “a major threat”.
The country’s daily number of infections hit 1,200 on Wednesday, up from 106 earlier in the month.
Before the detection of the new variant, authorities had predicted a fourth wave to hit South Africa starting around the middle of December, buoyed by travel ahead of the festive season.
The government-run National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said 22 positive cases of the B.1.1.529 variant have been recorded in the country following genomic sequencing.
The NICD said the number of detected cases and the percentage testing positive are “increasing quickly” in three of the country’s provinces including Gauteng, home to the economic Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.
A cluster outbreak was recently identified, concentrated at a higher education institute in Pretoria, the NICD added.
Last year, South Africa also detected the Beta variant of the virus, although until now its infection numbers have been driven by the Delta variant, which was originally detected in India.
The country has the highest pandemic numbers in Africa with around 2.95 million cases, of which 89,657 have been fatal.
No news is bad news
Support The Journal
Your contributions will help us continue
to deliver the stories that are important to you
Scientists said the new B.1.1.529 variant has at least 10 mutations, compared to two for Delta or three for Beta.
“What gives us some concerns (is) that this variant might not just have enhanced transmissibility, so spreads more efficiently, but might also be able to get around parts of the immune system and the protection we have in our immune system,” said
The coming days and weeks will be key to determine the severity of the variant, Lessells said.
Neutralising the variant is “complicated by the number of mutations this variant” contains, said one of the scientists Penny Moore.
“This variant contains many mutations that we are not familiar with,” she said.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) said it will soon meet South African experts to discuss the variant.
“There are so many variants out there but some of them are of no consequence on the trajectory of the epidemic,” Africa CDC head John Nkengasong told a news conference on Thursday.
After a rather slow start to South Africa’s vaccination campaign, around 41 percent of adults have received at least a single dose, while 35% are fully vaccinated. Those numbers are far above the continental average of 6.6% vaccinated.
It is aiming to inoculate 70% of its 59 million people.
With stockpiles of 16.5 million shots, South Africa has deferred taking delivery of more ordered doses because “we are getting vaccines in faster than we are using” them, health ministry director Nicholas Crisp said.
Contains additional reporting from PA.