Virus-laden EU set to stop air travel from Southern Africa on fears over new variant

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BRUSSELS (AP) – European Union nations on Friday moved to halt air travel from southern Africa, seeking to combat the spread of a new COVID-19 variant as the 27-nation bloc Cases fight a massive spike.

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“The last thing we need is to bring a new version that will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said.

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EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that she “proposes to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel to and from the southern African region, in close coordination with member states.”

Scientists say the new coronavirus variant found in South Africa is of concern because of its high number of mutations in the country’s most populous province, Gauteng, and its rapid spread among young people.

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Germany said von der Leyen’s proposal could be implemented as soon as Friday night. Spahn said airlines returning from South Africa would only be able to take German nationals home, and passengers would be required to go into quarantine for 14 days, whether or not they were vaccinated.

Germany has seen new record daily cases in recent days and on Thursday passed the 100,000-mark of deaths from COVID-19.

Italy’s health ministry also announced measures to ban entry into Italy in seven southern African countries – South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini – in the past 14 days because of the new version.

The Netherlands is planning similar measures.

“These countries are considered high-risk areas. This means a quarantine and double testing for travelers from these countries,” said Dutch Health Minister Hugo de Jong.

In Israel, the health ministry said it had detected the country’s first case of the new coronavirus variant in a traveler who returned from Malawi. The passenger and two other suspected cases have been kept in isolation. It said all three have been vaccinated but it is currently looking into their exact vaccination status.

A fourth spike of the coronavirus is hitting the 27-nation European Union particularly badly, with governments scrambling to tighten restrictions in an effort to contain the spread. The proposal for a flight ban has come in the wake of similar action from Britain on Thursday.

The UK announced it is banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective Friday afternoon, and anyone who has recently arrived from those countries will be asked to take a coronavirus test.

UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the new variant “may be more permeable” than the dominant Delta strain, and “the vaccines we currently have may be less effective” against it.

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new forms, including those with worrying mutations, often die. Scientists monitor potential changes that could be more transmissible or lethal, but finding out whether the new forms will have an impact on public health may take time.

Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in South African travelers in Botswana and Hong Kong, he said.

The World Health Organization’s technical working group is due to meet on Friday to assess the new version and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.

The World Health Organization says coronavirus infections rose 11% over the past week in Europe, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise. The WHO’s Europe director, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that without immediate measures, there could be another 700,000 deaths in the continent by spring.

The EU Emergency Brake Mechanism has been put in place to deal with such emergencies.

Where the epidemiological situation of a third country or region rapidly deteriorates, particularly if a manifestation of concern or interest is detected, Member States should adopt an immediate, temporary ban on all travel in the EU. This emergency brake should not apply to certain categories of EU citizens, long-term EU residents and essential travellers, who must be subject to appropriate testing and quarantine measures, despite being fully vaccinated.

Such restrictions should be reviewed at least every two weeks.

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