The United States, Brazil, Canada, and Saudi Arabia became the latest countries to restrict travel from southern Africa, where a new Covid strain labelled a variant of concern has been discovered.
The World Health Organization said the new variant is more infectious than the dominant, highly transmissible Delta strain, and renamed this B.1.1.529 strain of Covid-19 as Omicron. It has reached Europe with one confirmed case in Belgium after being found in South Africa, Botswana and then in Hong Kong.
Anxious tourists in Johannesburg rushed to the airport to catch a last flight out as nations across the globe started shutting their doors, while many worried the new variant could be more resistant to vaccines.
Markets around the world plunged as news of the latest setback in the fight against the pandemic sank in.
US President Joe Biden said countries should donate more Covid-19 vaccines and give up intellectual property protections to manufacture more doses worldwide to stem the spread of the virus.
“The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,” he said.
Scientists are now racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, and whether the current coronavirus vaccines should be adjusted.
The WHO said it could take several weeks to understand the variant and cautioned against imposing travel curbs while scientific evidence was still scant.
EU officials holding an emergency meeting agreed to urge all 27 nations in the bloc to restrict travel from southern Africa, even though many members had already announced flight suspensions.
‘Draconian’ travel bans
Europe is already struggling with a coronavirus surge, and the Netherlands on Friday became the latest country to ramp up anti-Covid restrictions with the early closure of bars, restaurants and shops.
“From Sunday, the whole of the Netherlands is effectively closed between 5pm and 5am,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.
Belgium announced the first publicly known case of B.1.1.529 in Europe: an unvaccinated person who returned on November 11 from Egypt via Turkey.
The health ministry did not give the individual’s nationality, age or gender.
“It must be repeated that this is a suspect variant – we don’t know if it is a very dangerous variant,” Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said.
Israel said it has quarantined three people, one having just returned from Malawi.