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World Health Organization to meet, decide on name for strain

Europe moves to halt flights from southern Africa over worrying COVID variant

Germany, Italy, and Britain have already restricted most travel from South Africa and neighboring nations, as EU calls on entire bloc to follow suit

Illustrative: A Lufthansa flight arrives from Munich, Germany as an American Airlines aircraft takes off at Miami International Airport, November 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Illustrative: A Lufthansa flight arrives from Munich, Germany as an American Airlines aircraft takes off at Miami International Airport, November 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

Germany and Italy on Friday joined Britain in banning most travel from South Africa as governments scrambled to prevent the spread of a new COVID-19 variant with a large number of mutations.

Germany’s new travel restrictions, starting Friday night, will affect South Africa and “probably neighboring nations,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said, with only German nationals allowed entry.

They must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival even if vaccinated.

“The last thing we need now is an introduced new variant that causes even more problems,” Spahn said, with Germany in the grip of a ferocious fourth wave of the pandemic.

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

In Rome, the government on Friday announced it was banning entry to those who have been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, or Eswatini in the past fortnight.

German police officers wearing face mask walk past a flight board in a terminal at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany, Tuesday, May 11, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Probst)

Health Minister Roberto Speranza said scientists were studying the new B.1.1.529 variant, “and in the meantime, we will follow the path of maximum caution.”

Britain announced that all flights from South Africa and its same neighbors would be prohibited starting Friday afternoon.

South Africa sharply condemned Britain’s decision.

“Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

The new coronavirus variant that has been detected in South Africa is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province, scientists say.

A young woman reacts as she receives a Pfizer jab against COVID-19, in Diepsloot Township near Johannesburg, October 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Denis Farrell, File)

In a sign of the growing alarm, the European Union separately proposed prohibiting travel from southern Africa.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that she “proposes, in close coordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region.”

A fourth spike of the coronavirus is hitting the 27-nation EU especially badly, with governments scrambling to tighten restrictions in an attempt to contain spread.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen prepares to address a media conference on Brexit negotiations at EU headquarters in Brussels, Thursday, December 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, Pool)

The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.

The World Health Organization’s technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says coronavirus infections jumped 11 percent in Europe in the past week, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise. The WHO’s Europe director, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by the spring.

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