Nations begin stopping air travel from southern Africa due to new coronavirus variant

Nations begin stopping air travel from southern Africa due to new coronavirus variant

The latest:

Canada is limiting travel from seven countries in southern Africa in response to news of a new, potentially more transmissible coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa, joining other countries that have announced similar measures.

At a news conference Friday, Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said Canada is implementing five measures to “protect the health and safety of Canadians” as concerns rise over the B.1.1.529 variant:

  • All foreign nationals who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini or Mozambique in the last 14 days will be barred from entering Canada.
     
  • Those who have arrived in Canada in the past 14 days from those countries are being asked to quarantine immediately until they get a negative COVID-19 test result.
     
  • Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return home from these countries, but will be required to take a COVID-19 test upon arrival and wait for results at a hotel. If the test is negative, they must quarantine for 14 days at home and must take another test on the eighth day of quarantine.
     
  • Global Affairs Canada is issuing a travel advisory asking Canadians not to visit southern Africa for now.
     
  • Canadians returning from that region will need to be tested in the last country they transited through before returning home (there are currently no direct flights between that region and Canada).

On Friday, the World Health Organization declared B.1.1.529 a variant of concern and named it omicron, following a meeting of its technical working group.

Travel restriction controversy

Even before that announcement, other countries had already moved to stop air travel from southern Africa.

The U.K. announced it was banning flights from South Africa and five other countries in the region effective noon on Friday, and said anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.

In a statement posted online Friday, South Africa said that while it respects the right of other countries to protect their citizens, “the U.K.’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the U.K. seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps.”

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa will convene a coronavirus council on Sunday to consider evidence on the variant.

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In a statement, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention called on member countries to ramp up immunization and implement masking and physical distancing measures.

The health agency, which supports public health efforts in member states, said in a statement Friday that it “strongly discourages” the travel ban for people originating from countries that reported the variant.

The 27-nation European Union also suspended air travel from southern Africa. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that would be the case “until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”

“It’s a suspicious variant,” said Frank Vandenbroucke, health minister in Belgium, which became the first EU country to announce a case of the variant. “We don’t know if it’s a very dangerous variant.”

The member nations of the EU have experienced a massive spike in cases recently, and German Health Minister Jens Spahn said, “The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems.”

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The Japanese government announced that starting Friday, Japanese nationals travelling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodation for 10 days and take a COVID-19 test on Day 3, 6 and 10. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals.

Meanwhile, the White House said the U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday. It said the restrictions will not apply to returning U.S. citizens or permanent residents, who will continue to be required to test negative before their travel.

“It seems to spread rapidly,” U.S. President Joe Biden said of the new variant. In announcing the travel restrictions, he told reporters, “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.”

The omicron variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travellers from South Africa.

Israel announced Friday that it has detected its first case of the new variant in a traveller returning from Malawi. The traveller and two other suspected cases have been placed in isolation.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned of a looming “state of emergency” due to the new variant as he widened a travel ban, announced Thursday, to all African countries except those in North Africa.

“Our main principle is to act fast, strong and now,” he said.

— From CBC News, The Associated Press and Reuters, last updated at 6 p.m. ET


What’s happening across Canada

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What’s happening around the world

Medical personnel of the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces, load COVID-19 patients onto a plane during a transfer of patients out of Bavaria during the fourth wave of the coronavirus pandemic on Friday. (Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images)

As of Friday evening, more than 260.5 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University’s coronavirus database. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.1 million.

In Europe, the German air force will begin assisting the transfer of intensive care patients Friday as the government warned that the situation in the country is more serious than at any point in the pandemic. Citing the sharp rise in cases, Health Minister Spahn said contacts between people need to be sharply reduced to curb the spread of the virus.

“The situation is dramatically serious, more serious than it’s been at any point in the pandemic,” he told reporters in Berlin.

Meanwhile, the European Union said on Friday that it will ease its restrictions on exporting COVID-19 vaccines.

The Commission, the EU’s executive arm, said that as of January it will no longer require vaccine producers to request special authorization to export outside the 27-member bloc.

People wait in line outside a COVID-19 testing station on Friday in Berlin, Germany, where cases have been surging. (Omer Messinger/Getty Images)

Earlier this year when vaccines were still in short supply, the EU introduced a mechanism to keep some of the jabs it secured from AstraZeneca, the Anglo-Swedish drug company, from being diverted elsewhere. The export control system, aimed at making sure large drug companies would respect their contracts, was used by the EU in March, when a shipment of more than a quarter of a million AstraZeneca vaccines destined for Australia was blocked from leaving.

When the dispute with AstraZeneca broke, the EU was lagging well behind the United States and other countries in COVID-19 vaccinations. According to Stella Kyriakides, the commissioner for health, the bloc has now vaccinated over 65 per cent of the total EU population of some 450 million inhabitants.

In the Americas, millions of Americans got booster shots at a near-record pace after the Biden administration expanded eligibility last week, but health officials concerned about climbing infections ahead of the winter holiday season urged more to get the additional protection.

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In Asia, India restarted exports of vaccines to the global vaccine-sharing network COVAX for the first time since April, and producer Serum Institute of India forecast a substantial increase in supplies from early next year.

Meanwhile, drugmakers Pfizer Inc. and MSD, known as Merck & Co Inc. in the United States and Canada, have agreed to give licences to firms in Vietnam to produce COVID-19 treatment pills.

— From Reuters and The Associated Press, last updated at 6 p.m. ET

Published at Fri, 26 Nov 2021 13:04:30 +0000