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Fear, international alarm and suspension of flights due to South African variant

Fear of the new variant of coronavirus detected in South Africa, apparently more transmissible, has led different countries to suspend travel from some South African states.

Scientists and health authorities in South Africa reported on Thursday the detection of a new variant of the coronavirus, identified as B.1.1.529.

Few cases of this variant have so far been confirmed elsewhere outside of Africa, but concerns arise from its possible impact on transmissibility and its potential ability to evade prior immunity or protection.

Suspended flights

In this context, several countries have decided to suspend this Friday flights from southern Africa via variant B.1.1.529.

France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore, Austria and Israel are some of those countries that have chosen to suspend travel from South Africa.

“These measures seek to protect against the arrival of this virus,” said the French Minister of Health, Olivier Véran, who pointed out that it is a new variant that spreads rapidly but that at the moment there are few cases.

Those 48 hours will allow you to consult other members of the European Union and obtain more information about the variant.

In this regard, the European Commission proposed this Friday to halt air traffic from southern Africa to prevent the spread in Europe of the variant of COVID-19.

“The European Commission will propose, in close coordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air traffic from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529,” the president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini are some of the countries that will not be able to carry out flights to the States that have already suspended connections.

African critics

The South African government today criticized those suspensions. “It is rushed, absolutely,” said Clayson Monyela, a spokesman for the Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation, in response to those announcements.

Monyela assured that South Africa will “dialogue with all countries” to reconsider these measures, since not even the World Health Organization (WHO) had time yet to define it as a “variant of concern” or to recommend measures.

South African scientists affirm that the detected variant is characterized by having multiple mutations (slightly more than thirty) that arouse the concern of specialists due to its possible impact on transmissibility and its potential ability to evade previous immunity or protection.

The impact of these mutations, however, still needs to be studied, since only about a hundred cases have been identified so far.

Scientists involved in its detection, such as Professor Tulio de Oliveira, from the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Sequencing Innovation Platform, anticipated last night, fearing that the reaction of the international community would tend to “discriminate” and “isolate” to the countries of southern Africa.

Along these lines, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Africa – an organism of the African Union – today “strongly” rejected the imposition of vetoes and travel restrictions.

“In fact, during this pandemic, we have observed that imposing bans on travelers from countries where a new variant is reported has not produced a significant result,” said this health institution in a statement.

WHO analyzes cases in Israel and Hong Kong

The health authorities of Hong Kong found on Wednesday two cases of the new variant of coronavirus B.1.1.529, discovered for the first time in South Africa, in one of the airport hotels of the former British colony.

Variant B.1.1.529 was introduced into the city by a 36-year-old man of Indian nationality who traveled to Hong Kong from South Africa on November 11 and tested positive during his quarantine.

The second case was detected in a 62-year-old Canadian man who was quarantining in the room directly across from the Indian traveler.

As for Israel, the Ministry of Health reported today that the first confirmed case of B.1.1529 corresponds to an Israeli citizen from Malawi, while there are two others suspected of being infected with it.

Meanwhile, experts for new pathogens from the World Health Organization are analyzing the data that are known from B.1.1.529 with their South African colleagues since this noon, as the head of the antiCOVID technical unit of the organization, Maria Van Kerkhove.

“We do not know much about the variant, we know that it has a high number of mutations, and the concern is that this affects the behavior of the virus,” said the expert, in the sense that it may increase its transmission capacity, or its resistance to treatments, diagnoses and vaccines.

“It will take a few days to see what impact it can have and the potential of vaccines against the variant,” said the American expert, who saw the discovery somewhat positively, since in her opinion it reflects that laboratories continue to effectively control variations in the coronavirus.

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