UK suspends flights to six African countries as new Covid variant raises alarm

British Health Secretary Sajid Javid speaks at a press conference at Downing Street on October 20, 2021 in London, England.

Toby Melville | WPA pool | Getty Images News

The United Kingdom temporarily suspends flights from six countries as a new Covid variant with more than 30 mutations spreads in South Africa.

Sajid Javid, the UK’s secretary of state for health and social care, made the announcement hours after the World Health Organization briefed on the new variant. The organization called a special meeting on Friday to further study the variant, which has been found in small numbers in South Africa.

“More data is needed, but we are now taking precautions. Starting at noon tomorrow, six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned and British travelers will be quarantined,” Javid wrote on Twitter.

In addition to South Africa, the countries of Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana are also subject to the new restrictions, according to a statement from Britain’s health, transport and health security authorities.

The WHO is holding a special meeting Friday to discuss what the new variant could mean for vaccines and treatments, officials said on Thursday.

The variant, called B.1.1.529, has been found in small numbers in South Africa, according to the WHO. The variant has quickly spread through Gauteng province, which contains the largest city in the country, Johannesburg.

The variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said during the briefing.

“We don’t know much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that if you have that many mutations, it can affect how the virus behaves,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said in a Q&A streamed live on the organization’s social media channels.

The newly discovered variant arrives as infection levels remain high in countries around the world. In Europe, Austria and Italy have announced new restrictions in recent days to slow the spread of the virus.

South African scientists have discovered more than 30 mutations in the new variant, raising concerns that it might better evade the antibody protection created by vaccines and previous infections.

Countries have used restrictions on flights or total travel since the early days of the pandemic as a tool to slow the spread of Covid. The US lifted the travel ban on 33 countries, including the UK, earlier this month.


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