New Covid variant: South Africa questions UK flight ban amid global alarm

Dutch government also halts air traffic temporarily

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By Reuters

Published: Fri 26 Nov 2021, 1:58 PM

South Africa said on Friday a British ban on flights from six southern African countries over a new Covid-19 variant seemed rushed, as EU authorities prepared similar moves and the World Health Organization (WHO) convened an emergency meeting.

Scientists have so far only detected the B.1.1.529 variant in relatively small numbers, mainly in South Africa but also in Botswana and Hong Kong, but say they are concerned by its high number of mutations which could possibly make it vaccine-resistant and more transmissible.

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Britain said the variant was the most significant one found yet after banning flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia from midday on Friday.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the EU also aimed to halt air travel from the region, describing the variant in a tweet as “of concern”.

The World Health Organization (WHO) is to hold an experts’ meeting in Geneva at 1100 GMT to discuss the variant and the risks it presents.

“WHO is convening a meeting ... to better understand the timeline for studies that are under way and to determine if this variant should be designated as a variant of interest or variant of concern,” WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier said.

Nearly 100 sequences of the variant have been reported, and early analysis shows it has “a large number of mutations” requiring further study, Lindmeier said.

WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said in a video posted on Twitter that it could take a few weeks to understand the impact of the variant’s mutations.

The rand slumped over 2% against the dollar early on Friday, as the variant unnerved investors. South African hospitality stocks also plummeted.

South Africa will speak to British authorities to try to get them to reconsider their ban, the foreign ministry in Pretoria said.

“Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement.

As Asian countries also moved to tighten curbs, two Welsh rugby clubs in South Africa for a tournament scrambled to leave as soon as possible, and British and Irish golfers withdrew from the Johannesburg Open.

Meanwhile, the Dutch government said it will temporarily halt air traffic from Southern Africa, following the detection of a new coronavirus variant there, the ANP press agency reported, citing the country’s health minister.

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