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A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant.
"The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems," said German Health Minister Jens Spahn, amid a massive spike in cases in the 27-nation European Union.
"Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the delta variant and current vaccines may be less effective against it," British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers. "We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment."
Within a few days of the discovery of the new variant, it has already impacted on a jittery society that is sensitive to bad COVID-19 news, with deaths around the globe standing at over five million.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads, and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time. Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travellers from South Africa.
The WHO's technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.
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- European Union moves to halt air travel from southern Africa over coronavirus variant.
Israel, one of the world's most vaccinated countries, announced Friday that it has detected the country's first case of the new variant in a traveller who returned from Malawi. The traveller and two other suspected cases have been placed in isolation. The country said all three are vaccinated but that it is currently looking into their exact vaccination status.
The World Health Organization cautioned not to jump to conclusions too fast.
Speaking before the EU announcement, Dr. Michael Ryan, the head of emergencies at the WHO, said that "it's really important that there are no 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. It's really important that we remain open, and stay focused," Ryan said.
It quickly fell on deaf ears.
The U.K. announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
In a statement posted online Friday, South Africa said that while it respects the right of other countries to protect their citizens, "the U.K.'s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the U.K. seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps."
Germany said its flight ban could be enacted as soon as Friday night. Spahn said airlines coming back 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. The country has seen new record daily case numbers in recent days and passed the mark of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.
Italy's health ministry also announced measures to ban entry into Italy of anyone who has been in seven southern African nations — South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini — in the past 14 days due to the new variant. The Netherlands is planning similar measures.
The Japanese government announced that from Friday, Japanese nationals travelling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodation for 10 days and do a COVID test on Day 3, Day 6 and Day 10. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals.
In Washington, top U.S. infectious disease official Dr. Anthony Fauci said no decision had been made on a possible U.S. travel ban. There was no indication that the variant was in the United States, and it was unclear whether it was resistant to current vaccines, he told CNN.
What's happening across Canada
- 1st doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered to kids under 12 in N.L.
- 95 new cases of COVID-19 reported in N.B. as vaccine plan for kids expands.
- Ontario logs 748 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday as vaccinations for kids aged 5 to 11 ramp up.
- $6.8 million earmarked for air filters to prevent COVID-19 spread in Manitoba classroom.
- Moe says he 'should have acted a little bit earlier' on Sask.'s COVID-19 measures, now extended until Jan. 31.
- Alberta Health says privacy breach possible on province's vaccine passport website.
- Hospitalizations fall as B.C. records 424 new cases of COVID-19 and 3 more deaths.
What's happening around the world
As of early Friday morning, more than 260.1 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University's coronavirus database. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.1 million.
In Europe, the German air force will begin assisting the transfer of intensive care patients Friday as the government warned that the situation in the country is more serious than at any point in the pandemic. Citing the sharp rise in cases, Health Minister Jens Spahn said contacts between people need to be sharply reduced to curb the spread of the virus.
"The situation is dramatically serious, more serious than it's been at any point in the pandemic," he told reporters in Berlin.
Meanwhile, the European Union said on Friday that it will ease its restrictions on exporting COVID-19 vaccines.
The Commission, the EU's executive arm, said that as of January it will no longer require vaccine producers to request special authorization to export outside the 27-nation bloc.
Earlier this year when vaccines were still in short supply, the EU introduced a mechanism to keep some of the jabs it secured from AstraZeneca, the Anglo-Swedish drug company, from being diverted elsewhere. The export control system, aimed at making sure large drug companies would respect their contracts, was used by the EU in March, when a shipment of more than a quarter of a million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia was blocked from leaving.
When the dispute with AstraZeneca broke, the EU was lagging well behind the United States and other countries in COVID-19 vaccinations. According to Stella Kyriakides, the commissioner for health, the bloc has now vaccinated over 65 per cent of the total EU population of some 450 million inhabitants.
In Africa, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will convene a coronavirus council on Sunday, as the country said the U.K.'s ban on flights from six southern African countries over the variant seemed rushed.
In the Americas, millions of Americans got booster shots at a near-record pace after the Biden administration expanded eligibility last week, but health officials concerned about climbing infections ahead of the winter holiday season urged more to get the additional protection.
In the Asia-Pacific region, drugmakers Pfizer Inc. and MSD, known as Merck & Co Inc. in the United States and Canada, have agreed to give licences to firms in Vietnam to produce COVID-19 treatment pills.
In the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned of a looming "state of emergency" due to the new variant detected in South Africa.
With files from Reuters and CBC News
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