Europe may ban air travel from southern Africa due to the new COVID variant that has emerged in recent days.
The Department of Health has said it is ‘deeply concerned’ about the variant identified in southern Africa and Hong Kong.
Experts say the new strain is ‘the worst we've seen so far' with 32 mutations – a number of which could make the virus resistant to currently available vaccines and natural immunity.
This morning, the European Commission said it was urging EU members to activate the ‘Emergency Brake Mechanism’ to prevent travel from southern Africa.
The @EU_Commission will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) November 26, 2021
The mechanism would see all members states implementing an “urgent, temporary restriction on all travel into the EU” from the region.
The brake would not apply to EU citizens, long-term EU residents and certain categories of essential travellers – although the EU has said these should be subject to “appropriate testing and quarantine measures, even if fully vaccinated”.
Each member state must make its own decision on whether to implement the emergency break.
Just 53 cases related to the new B.1.1.529 strain have been detected so far but there are fears the number could be far higher with South Africa experiencing an almost exponential rise in cases.
Through the early part of November, South Africa was experiencing daily case rates of around 300 cases per day however, that jumped to 1,200 on Wednesday and almost doubled again to 2,465 on Thursday.
The strain has yet to be designated a ‘variant of concern;’ however, the World Health Organisation is meeting today to further assess its significance.
South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla said officials are doing everything they can to contain it.
“From the experience of the last 21 months or so, we almost can predict how this is going to move,” he said.
“You can rest assured, as people start to move even more over the next few weeks, this will be all over.”
In a statement last night, the Government here said Health Minister Stephen Donnelly was 'deeply concerned' about the variant.
In Britain, six African countries will be added to the travel red list from midday today. As a result, flights will temporarily be banned and traveller will have to quarantine.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid says the new variant is very concerning.
“The early indication we have of this variant is that it may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and the vaccines we currently have may be less effective against it,” he said.
The European Centres for Disease Control said it is continuing to monitor all emerging evidence in relation to the variant.
No cases of the variant have been reported in Europe as yet.
The Department of Health said it has been in contact with colleagues in Northern Ireland and will liaise with authorities in Britain.