Europe is in a hurry to strengthen its virus defenses as South Africa discovers new tribes
Governments across Europe rushed on Friday to bolster their defenses against a new coronavirus rise as South Africa announced it had discovered a new Covid-19 strain that scientists fear could torpedo efforts to beat the pandemic.
In recent weeks, the continent has been in violent cases and violent riots, struggling with booster programs and dramatic shutdowns to stem the tide as its death toll exceeded 1.5 million, and it once again became the global epicenter of a relentless pandemic.
Researchers are now racing to understand the impact of the new, highly mutated strain, feared to be more contagious than Delta, which brought the world back to its knees a year after the virus first appeared in central China.
“This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine susceptibility,” the head of the UK Health Agency, Jennie Harries, said in a statement.
– Fear of Dutch riots –
Prior to Thursday’s announcement by scientists in South Africa, countries across Europe were already accelerating booster campaigns, enforcing stricter restrictions and targeting the unvaccinated as cases rose to record levels.
Authorities in the Netherlands were preparing for new riots ahead of an expected announcement Friday by Prime Minister Mark Rutte to tighten a partial shutdown as the country faces a critical shortage of hospital beds with infections reaching record levels.
The country has been subjected to four days in a row of anti-lockdown riots, led by people Rutte described as “idiots”, the worst in the port city of Rotterdam, where police opened fire on rioters and injured five.
“We keep our eyes and ears open and we are prepared,” Rotterdam police spokesman Gijs van Nimwegen told AFP.
Germany, the Czech Republic and Portugal – which have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world – have all announced new measures in recent days to stem the tide of infection that has been worse than feared.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday issued an urgent warning to the country’s future government, saying that “every day counts” as the country’s death toll exceeded 100,000.
Europe is stepping up its vaccination efforts to repel the rising incidence ahead of the impending winter.
On Thursday, France made booster shots available to all adults, and the European Medicines Agency has approved jabs for five- to 11-year-olds.
– ‘Many mutations’ –
Researchers and health officials in the UK and South Africa have sounded the alarm that the new variant – which is expected to be codenamed by the WHO on Friday – could undo much of the hard-fought gains against the virus over the summer.
The WHO said it was “closely monitoring” the reported variant and was expected to decide whether to label it as a variant of “interest” or “concern”.
Researchers have said that the new B.1.1.529 variant has at least 10 mutations compared to two for Delta or three for Beta.
“The concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical director at Covid-19, said at a virtual press briefing.
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla described the tribe as “a major threat”.
The finding has left British scientists “deeply concerned”, Health Minister Sajid Javid said because it could make current vaccines less effective.
In the first international step to protect against the spread, Britain said it would ban travel from six South African countries.
The news of the variant’s discovery scared investors in the trade early in the afternoon, with Tokyo shares plunging three percent.
– Shanghai closes schools –
In Asia, China’s strict zero-Covid policy pushed Shanghai to cancel hundreds of flights and close some schools after three local cases were registered, health officials said Friday.
“China has accumulated a wealth of experience in ‘Dynamic Zero Covid,'” Zhang Wenhong, head of the Shanghai Covid Prevention Expert Task Force, said at a Thursday briefing.
“So our strategy will not change.”
However, there was more positive news elsewhere.
The Philippines said Friday it would welcome vaccinated foreign tourists back to its shores next week from countries designated as low-risk countries.
But the effects of the pandemic have pushed even the most hardened skeptics on the world stage to embrace some antivirus measures.
“As far as I am concerned, we should not have a carnival,” in February, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said in an interview Thursday in a rare nod to social distancing.
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