BRUSSELS – A slew of countries moved to halt air travel from South Africa on Friday, and stocks in Asia and Europe fell in response to news of a new, potentially more transmissible type of COVID-19.
“The last thing we need is to introduce a new species that will cause more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said, amid a massive rise in cases in the 27-nation European Union.
Within a few days of the discovery of the new variant, it had already affected a nervous community sensitive to the bad news of COVID-19, with the number of deaths worldwide reaching more than 5 million.
There are concerns that the new variant could be more contagious than the current dominant type and could exceed the effectiveness of vaccination campaigns.
“Initial indications are that this variant may be more transmissible than the delta variant and that current vaccines may be less effective against it,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers. “We must act quickly and as soon as possible,” he said.
Israel, one of the world’s most vaccinated countries, announced on Friday that it had detected the country’s first case of the new type of a traveler who had returned from Malawi. The traveler and two suspected cases have been placed in isolation. She said all three have been vaccinated but she is currently studying their exact vaccination status.
The new alternative immediately hit stock markets around the world. Major indices in Europe and Asia fell and Dow Jones futures fell by 800 points ahead of the market open in the US
“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” said Jeffrey Haley of forex trading firm Oanda.
Oil prices fell with the United States. Crude oil is down 6.7% at $73.22 a barrel and the Brent benchmark is down 5.6% at $77.64, both of which are unusually large moves for one day. The pandemic caused oil prices to drop during the initial outbreak of the pandemic in 2020 because travel restrictions reduced demand for fuel.
Airlines shares fell, with Lufthansa down 12.4%, IAG, the parent company of British Airways and Iberia, 14.4%, Air France-KLM down 8.9% and easyJet 10.9%
The World Health Organization has warned not to rush to conclusions.
Speaking ahead of the EU’s announcement, Dr Michael Ryan, WHO’s head of emergencies, said, “It’s really important that there are no quick responses.”
“We’ve seen in the past, the moment there’s any mention of any kind of difference and everyone closes borders and restricts travel. It’s really important that we stay open, that we stay focused,” Ryan said.
Soon it fell on deaf ears.
The United Kingdom announced that it will ban flights from South Africa and five other countries in South Africa from noon on Friday, and that anyone who has recently arrived from those countries will be required to take a coronavirus test.
Germany said the flight ban could be triggered as soon as Friday night. Spahn said airlines returning from South Africa will only be able to fly German nationals home, and travelers will need to self-quarantine for 14 days whether or not they have been vaccinated.
Germany saw new records for daily cases in recent days and crossed the 100,000 mark from COVID-19 on Thursday.
The Italian Ministry of Health has also announced measures to ban entry to Italy by anyone in 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 plans to take similar measures.
The Japanese government has announced that from Friday, Japanese nationals traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine in government designated accommodations for 10 days and take a COVID test on Day 3, Day 6 and Day 10. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals.
Corona virus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often die. Scientists are watching for potential changes that could be more transmissible or lethal, but determining whether new variables will have an impact on public health may take time.
He said the new variant, currently identified as B.1.1.529, was also found in Botswana and Hong Kong in South African travelers.
The World Health Organization’s technical working group will meet on Friday to evaluate the new alternative and may decide whether to name it from the Greek alphabet. It says coronavirus infections jumped 11% in Europe last week, the only region in the world where the coronavirus continues to rise. The Director of Europe at the World Health Organization, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by spring.
Lorne Cook contributed in Brussels, Colin Barry in Milan, Pan Bellas in London, Jamie Keeten in Geneva, Mike Corder in The Hague, Dave McHugh and Frank Jordan in Berlin
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