South African countries put on UK travel red list on Covid variant

The United Kingdom will return six South African countries to its red list of travel restrictions after an increase in cases of the highly mutated coronavirus caused concern among global health officials.

Government officials said travelers returning from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini will have to quarantine for 10 days at a government facility from midday Friday.

Direct flights from the six countries will be banned from midday on Friday until the hotel quarantine runs from 4am on Sunday.

New travel restrictions from the United Kingdom sent the South African rand down 1.3 per cent to the R16 against the US dollar, the currency’s weakest level in a year.

The rule change follows growing concern by scientists about the ability of the B. 1.1.529 Sars-Cov-2 variant to evade vaccines and transmit faster than the delta variant. The strain, which was first identified in Botswana, is believed to have been behind the resurgence of Covid cases in South Africa over the past week.

Sajid Javid, the UK’s Minister for Health and Social Care, said the UK’s Health Security Agency was “investigating a new variant. More data is needed but we are taking precautions now”.

He said in a tweet on Twitter that from noon on Friday, “six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned, and British travelers must quarantine.”

The World Health Organization is holding an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the new variant, with the strain expected to identify an “interesting variant”. Earlier on Thursday, Israel banned travelers from South Africa and neighboring countries, Haaretz reported.

Hong Kong said it had recorded two cases of type B. 1.1.529 of the coronavirus after genome sequencing analysis. They were a traveler who arrived from South Africa this month and another from Canada who stayed in a quarantine room on the same floor.

Authorities ordered 12 other guests who stayed on the same floor of the hotel to undergo an additional two weeks of mandatory quarantine at a government facility.

Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Friday that the government is gathering information and will respond quickly, although the alternative has not yet been confirmed in the country.

“If the situation deteriorates and the infection spreads, the government will respond quickly,” Matsuno said.

The variant has been described as the most worrying type of coronavirus that researchers have encountered. Unconfirmed data appears to show it is spreading faster than thought in South Africa, where the rate of tests yielding a positive result has jumped in recent weeks.

At least 59 cases of the variant, originating primarily in South Africa, have been genomically sequenced. But local health officials told the Financial Times that early PCR results indicated that 90 percent of the 1,100 new cases on Wednesday in South Africa’s Gauteng region, which includes Johannesburg, were caused by the new variant.

Tulio de Oliveira, director of South Africa’s Center for Epidemiological Response and Innovation, told the Financial Times he was “worried” about the strain.

De Oliveira said there are traits present in the new variant that were previously associated with high transmissibility. “And the main question that needs to be answered is exactly what is the effect on vaccines,” he added.

Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organization, said the new variant contained “a number of alarming mutations in the spike protein”. “Early analysis shows that this variant contains a large number of mutations that require and will be subject to further study,” the World Health Organization said in a statement.

It was described by Dr Jenny Harris, chief executive of UKHSA, as “the most important variable we have encountered to date, and urgent research is under way to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine susceptibility”.

She added that it was “a clear reminder to everyone that this pandemic is far from over.”

Professor Christina Bagel, member of the Independent Scientific Advisors Group, welcomed the UK government’s decision. “We are currently ahead of [this variant] In the UK.” “Working now is our best chance to ban imports while we find out more about it.”

Ewan Birney, deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, has called for international help for South Africa in its fight against the new strain. “The international community must make medicines and vaccines available to South Africa as quickly as possible,” Bernie said.

South Africa and other countries in the region were removed from the UK’s previous red list in October. Travel restrictions were first imposed on the region at the beginning of the year for the Beta variant, which Delta replaced.

The new red list is likely to dash South Africa’s hopes of salvaging this year’s summer tourism season, which is vital to the economy. The country’s top businessmen and officials have long felt that they are being penalized for having relatively advanced genome-monitoring capabilities.

Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne and Philip Georgiades in London, Hudson Lockett and Thomas Chan in Hong Kong and Leo Lewis in Tokyo

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