EU wants to stop flights from southern Africa due to new COVID-19 variant

BRUSSELS (AP) – European Union countries on Friday moved to halt air travel from southern Africa in a bid to curb the spread of a novel COVID-19 strain as the bloc of 27 countries experienced a massive spike in cases afflicted.

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

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that she “proposes, in close cooperation with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air traffic from the South African region”.

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

Germany said von der Leyen’s proposal could be passed as early as Friday evening. Spahn said airlines returning from South Africa can only transport German citizens home and travelers must be quarantined for 14 days, whether vaccinated or not.

Germany has seen new record daily numbers in recent days, crossing the 100,000 mark on deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.

The Italian Ministry of Health has also announced measures to ban entry to Italy from anyone who has been to seven South African countries – 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.

‚ÄúThese countries are considered high-risk areas. It means a quarantine and double tests for travelers from these countries,” said Health Minister Hugo De Jonge.

In Israel, the health ministry said it has detected the country’s first case of the new coronavirus strain in a traveler returning from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases have been placed in isolation. It said all three have been vaccinated but it is currently investigating their exact vaccination status.

A fourth peak of the coronavirus mainly affects the EU’s 27 countries, with governments scrambling to tighten restrictions in an effort to contain the spread. The no-fly proposal came after a similar move from Britain on Thursday.

The UK announced it will ban flights from South Africa and five other South African countries at noon on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.

UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns that the new variant “might be more transmissible” than the dominant delta strain, and that “the vaccines we currently have may be less effective” against it.

The coronavirus is evolving as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrisome mutations, often simply die out. Scientists are monitoring potential changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but figuring out whether new variants have public health implications could take time.

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

The World Health Organization’s technical working group will meet on Friday to review the new variant and decide whether to name it from the Greek alphabet.

The World Health Organization says the number of coronavirus infections has risen by 11% in the past week in Europe, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise. The director of WHO Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent action, the continent could face another 700,000 deaths by spring.

The EU emergency braking mechanism is designed to deal with such emergencies.

When the epidemiological situation of a third country or region deteriorates rapidly, in particular if a variant of concern or concern has been discovered, Member States should introduce an urgent, temporary restriction on all travel to the EU. This emergency brake should not apply to EU citizens, EU long-term residents and certain categories of essential travellers, who should nevertheless be subject to appropriate testing and quarantine measures, even if they have been fully vaccinated.

Such restrictions should be reviewed at least every two weeks.

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Lorne Cook in Brussels, Colleen Barry in Milan, Mike Corder in The Hague and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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