A number of countries, including the United Kingdom, Israel, Italy, and Singapore, have moved to restrict travel from South Africa and other countries in the region in response to warnings about a new COVID variant.
In the past, governments took days, weeks, or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants, according to The New York Times on Friday.
This time, restrictions were imposed just hours after South African authorities identified a concerning new coronavirus variant with mutations – and just hours before health officials from the country were scheduled to meet with the World Health Organization (WHO) to discuss the variant.
On Thursday, the United Kingdom and Israel announced bans on flights from South Africa and several neighbouring countries, citing the threat of the new variant.
The UK’s flight ban affects six countries: South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, and it goes into effect on Friday.
“More data is needed but we are taking precautions now,” UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Twitter.
According to the report, the governments of Italy, Malta, and Singapore announced similar restrictions on Friday.
“Our scientists are at work to study the new B.1.1.529 variant,” Italy’s Health Minister, Roberto Speranza, said in a statement, using the variant’s scientific name.
President Ursula von der Leyen of the European Union’s executive arm said in a Twitter post on Friday that the EU would consider restricting air travel from southern Africa to European countries due to concerns about the variant.
Scientists discovered the variant in the last two days after noticing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub surrounding Johannesburg. Only a few dozen cases have been reported in South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel, and Botswana so far.
South Africa said in a statement posted on a government website on Friday that it would urge the UK to reconsider its travel restrictions.
“The UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed, as even the World Health Organisation is yet to advise on the next steps,” the statement reads.
South Africa was the first country to report the appearance of the Beta variant, which has since spread to nearly 70 countries.
UPDATE: Belgium has reported the first European case of the new B.1.1.529 variant. – read.