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Travel restrictions multiply for African countries over fears of new variant

International passengers walk through the arrivals area at Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport on November 26, 2021 in London, England.Leon Neal/Getty

European countries Friday joined Singapore, Israel and others in restricting travel from southern Africa in a frantic effort to keep a newly identified, and apparently significantly evolved, variant of the coronavirus from crossing into their borders.

In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants. This time, restrictions came within hours of South Africa’s announcement — at least 10 countries around the world had announced measures before South African scientists had finished a meeting with World Health Organization experts about the variant Friday.

There is no proof yet that the variant could diminish the protective power of vaccines, but uncertainty on that question was one factor in the speed of countries’ move toward restrictions.

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The new variant, initially called B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform.

On the protein that helps to create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells, the new variant has 10 mutations, many more than the dangerous delta variant, de Oliveira said.

Still, even public health researchers who have been the most outspoken in urging protection from the virus urged calm Friday, noting that little is known about the variant and that several seemingly threatening variants have come and gone in recent months.

“Substantively NOTHING is known about the new variant,” Roberto Burioni, a leading Italian virus expert, wrote on Twitter, adding that people should not panic.

Stocks tumbled around the world Friday as the news of the variant spooked markets, prompted Britain, France, Italy and others to bar flights and impose restrictions, and terrified many Europeans already exhausted by news of breakthrough infections, surging cases before another imperiled holiday season, and rallies by vaccine skeptics.

So far only a few dozen cases of the new variant have been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.

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But the case in Israel was a person who had recently arrived from Malawi, according to the state broadcaster, Kan. And Belgium’s case was detected in a young, unvaccinated woman who had recently returned from travel abroad, but not to South Africa or neighboring countries, Belgian researchers said.

Countries in Europe, once again the epicenter of the pandemic, wasted no time and were among the first to announce travel bans. Britain announced its restriction Thursday and put it into force Friday.

“More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now,” Sajid Javid, the British health secretary, said on Twitter.

The discovery of the variant by South African authorities this week comes as the virus was already galloping across the continent in a deadly fourth wave, especially in Eastern Europe where vaccination levels are low and restrictions have been loose.

Italy’s decision Friday to block travel from South Africa and the region showed that even a country that has generally been ahead of the wave, vaccinating much of its population and introducing early, and then progressively stricter, health passes to keep infections low, is not taking any chances.

The history of the pandemic has shown that blocking flights has not been a panacea in stopping the virus, and especially variants that spread with increasing ease. But this time, countries acted much earlier and more restrictions seemed likely.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Union’s executive arm, said in a Twitter post Friday morning that it would also propose restricting air travel to European countries from southern Africa.

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In a statement posted Friday on a government website, South Africa said it would urge Britain to reconsider its travel restrictions, saying “even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps.” But that complaint came before a flurry of other bans from other countries.

In the past two days, scientists in South Africa — which has a sophisticated detection system — discovered the variant after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub surrounding Johannesburg.

“This variant did surprise us — it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of delta,” de Oliveira said.