The WHO recommends that countries “continue to use a risk-based and scientific approach to imposing travel restrictions,” said WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier in Geneva on Friday. “There is a warning against the imposition of travel restrictions,” he added. Lindmeier emphasized that well-known means such as masks, hand hygiene, fresh air and avoiding crowds are also effective against B.1.1.529.
A WHO expert panel will discuss the classification of B.1.1.529 on Friday. Among other things, it is about the question of whether the mutant should be classified as a “variant of concern” or as a “variant of interest”, according to the authority. It is currently classified as “Variant Under Monitoring”, so it is under observation. After the deliberations, the media and governments are to be informed of the result and possible measures.
Behavior of variant not yet clear
According to the WHO, it will only be known in a few weeks whether B.1.1.529 is more contagious or more aggressive than previous variants. The variant that appeared in southern Africa has so far been genetically sequenced less than a hundred times. According to the definition of the WHO, “worrying variants” are more easily transferable or lead to more severe courses. They can also make vaccines, medicines, virus tests, and interventions less effective.
WHO Covid-19 envoy David Nabarro told the BBC on Friday that he thought it really was appropriate to be concerned. “I explain why: The virus looks like it has more capacity to defy our defenses that we built up with the vaccination.”
Austria imposes an entry freeze
Even before the planned WHO classification, a number of countries announced safety precautions. An entry freeze applies to Austria from midnight. The entry regulations will be adjusted accordingly and the countries South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini will be classified as virus variant areas, the Ministry of Health said on Friday. Entry from these countries is therefore generally prohibited, it said in a broadcast.
Austrian citizens are entitled to enter the country, but have to adhere to particularly strict quarantine rules (ten-day quarantine, PCR test upon entry, registration), the ministry said. In addition, flights from these seven African countries will be banned from landing. The ordinance will come into force at midnight, the ministry said.
Federal Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg (ÖVP) said the new variant gave cause for concern: “We are reacting quickly and consistently.” Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein (Greens) said Austria was reacting immediately to current developments. On Twitter, Mückstein stated that so far none of the Austrian monitoring stations – not even for wastewater monitoring – had any indications of the new variant.
EU Commission wants to cut air traffic
As a precautionary measure, the European Union wants to cut air traffic from southern Africa in general. “In close coordination with the member states, the Commission will propose to activate the emergency brake in order to cease air traffic from southern Africa due to the worrying variant B.1.1.529,” tweeted EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The German and Italian governments also announced on Friday morning that they would be restricting travel from South Africa, with Malta, the Czech Republic and France joining them. The managing health minister of Germany, Jens Spahn (CDU), also asked returnees from South Africa to voluntarily go into quarantine and do a PCR test. He can only ask people who have already arrived to take this step, there is no legal handle, so Spahn.
The Japanese government also decided on Friday to tighten border controls for travelers from South Africa and five other African countries, as reported by the Jiji news agency. In India, travelers from South Africa and other countries are also to be consistently tested and checked, said the Indian Ministry of Health.
Travel restrictions in Israel and the UK
The British government restricted air traffic from several countries in the region on Thursday. In addition, there is a strict obligation to hotel quarantine for those arriving. The British Health Minister Sajid Javid said that South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe are affected by the new rule.
Israel also imposed immediate travel restrictions on several African countries. South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini have been classified as “red countries” after a special consultation, said the office of Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. According to official information on Friday, a person was identified in Israel who was infected with the new variant of the corona virus. The Ministry of Health announced on Friday that two other people are suspected cases who are still waiting for their test results. You are in quarantine.
Cases in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel
Cases of the new variant were previously identified in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong. The number of daily reported infections in South Africa rose to more than 1,200 this week. At the beginning of the month there were around 100 new infections. According to experts, the new variant is spreading mainly among young people. According to the South African Institute for Infectious Diseases (NICD), the number of cases in which the variant was detected rose particularly sharply in three provinces of the country – including Gauteng, where the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria are located. A cluster was recently discovered at a university in Pretoria.
CoV variant “perhaps more contagious”
A new variant of the corona virus that has appeared in southern Africa is causing international concern. Experts suspect that the variant “maybe more contagious” could be.
South Africa’s Minister of Health, Joe Phaahla, said the new variant confirms the “fact that this invisible enemy is very unpredictable”. He called on the South Africans to wear masks, to keep their distance and, in particular, to get vaccinated. “We also have the extra vehicle of vaccination, which will help us avoid serious illness, including the risk of ending up in clinic or even falling victim to the virus,” he said.
Krammer: “Not good”, but “too early to say something”
Austrian researcher Florian Krammer, who works at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, looks at the new variant with a little concern, but without panic. Such a large number of mutations in the spike protein are “not good”. It could be a variant that will make it necessary to adapt vaccines for the first time. But more data is needed to make an assessment: “It’s too early to say something.”
Too little is known about whether the derivative of the SARS-CoV-2 pathogen designed in this way is similarly infectious or even more infectious than the currently dominant delta variant, said Krammer to the APA. However, it looks like she has what it takes to better escape an established immune defense.
British experts fear that the vaccination will be effective
According to the British expert James Naismith, professor of structural biology at Oxford University, the vaccinations are “almost certainly” less effective against the new variant. On the basis of the available data, it cannot yet be said with certainty whether it is also easier to transfer. “We suspect so, and there is some early data,” Naismith continued.
The scientist Susan Hopkins of Imperial College London described the new variant as “the most worrying we have ever seen”. The transmission rate (R number) determined so far in South Africa is 2. That is similar to the values at the beginning of the pandemic, according to Hopkins on BBC radio. More data is needed to come to a final assessment.
From the point of view of the South African virologist Shabir Madhi, conventional vaccines only protect against the new variant B.1.1.529 to a limited extent. He told the TV broadcaster eNCA in Johannesburg on Friday: “We assume that there is still some protection.” However, it is likely that previous vaccines are likely to be less effective.
Biontech checks effectiveness
The vaccine manufacturer Biontech is already checking whether its vaccine will also work against the new variant. “We expect further data from the laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest,” announced Biontech on Friday. These data would indicate whether the vaccine needs to be adjusted. Biontech and its US partner Pfizer had made preparations months ago to adapt the mRNA vaccine within six weeks in the event of a resistant variant and to deliver the first batches within 100 days.