UK suspends flights to six African countries as new variant of Covid sounds the alarm

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British Health Secretary Sajid Javid speaks at a press conference in Downing Street on October 20, 2021 in London, England.

Toby Melville | WPA Pool | Getty Images News

The UK is temporarily suspending flights from six countries as a new variant of Covid with more than 30 mutations spreads in South Africa.

Sajid Javid, UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Affairs, made the announcement hours after the World Health Organization gave a briefing on the new variant. The organization called a special meeting on Friday to further study the variant, which has been detected in low numbers in South Africa.

“More data is needed, but we are taking precautions now. From noon tomorrow six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned and British travelers will have to self-quarantine,” Javid wrote on Twitter.

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Besides South Africa, the countries of Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana are included in the new restrictions, according to a statement released by UK health, transport and health security agencies.

WHO is holding a special meeting on Friday to discuss what the new variant may mean for vaccines and treatments, officials said Thursday.

The variant, called B.1.1.529, has been detected in South Africa in low numbers, according to the WHO. The variant quickly spread to Gauteng Province, which contains the country’s largest city, Johannesburg.

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The variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said during the briefing.

“We don’t know much about it yet. What we do know is that this variant has a lot of mutations. And the concern is that when you have that many mutations, it can impact the behavior of the virus, “Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical officer on Covid-19, said in a question-and-answer session broadcast live on the organization’s social media.

The newly detected variant comes as infection levels remain high in countries around the world. In Europe, Austria and Italy have announced new restrictions in recent days aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

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South African scientists have detected more than 30 mutations in the new variant, raising concerns that it may better escape the antibody protection created by vaccines and previous infections.

Countries have used restrictions on flights or total travel as a tool to slow the spread of Covid since the early days of the pandemic. The United States just lifted their travel ban on 33 countries, including the United Kingdom, earlier this month.

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