Denis Farrell / AP
BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union announced on Friday that it plans to halt air travel from southern Africa to counter the spread of a new variant of COVID-19 as the bloc of 27 countries battles a massive spike in cases.
“The last thing we need is to introduce a new variant which will cause even more problems,” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that she “proposes, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the region of Southern Africa “.
A new variant of the coronavirus has been detected in South Africa which scientists say is of concern because of its high number of mutations and its rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.
Germany has said von der Leyen’s proposal could be adopted as early as Friday evening. Spahn said airlines returning from South Africa will only be able to carry German citizens home and travelers will need to be quarantined for 14 days whether or not they are vaccinated.
Germany has recorded a new record number of daily cases in recent days and surpassed the 100,000 death mark from COVID-19 on Thursday.
A fourth coronavirus peak hits the 27-country EU particularly hard, as governments scramble to tighten restrictions in an attempt to contain the spread. The proposed flight ban came in the wake of similar action by Britain on Thursday.
The UK has announced it will ban flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries from noon Friday, and anyone recently arriving from those countries would be invited to take a test of coronavirus.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the dominant delta strain and that “the vaccines we currently have may be less effective” against it.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with disturbing mutations, often disappear. Scientists are watching for possible changes that could be more transmissible or fatal, but determining whether new variants will impact public health can take time.
Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong among travelers from South Africa, he said.
The World Health Organization’s technical working group is due to meet on Friday to assess the new variant and may decide to name it from the Greek alphabet.
The World Health Organization says coronavirus infections jumped 11% in Europe last week, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise. WHO’s director for Europe, Dr Hans Kluge, has warned that without urgent action, the continent could see 700,000 more deaths by spring.
The EU Emergency Braking Mechanism has been put in place to deal with such emergencies.
When the epidemiological situation of a third country or third region worsens rapidly, in particular if a worrying or interesting variant has been detected, Member States should adopt an urgent and temporary restriction of all travel within the EU . This emergency brake should not apply to EU citizens, long-term EU residents and certain categories of essential travelers, who should nevertheless be subjected to appropriate tests and quarantine measures , even if they are fully vaccinated.
These restrictions should be reviewed at least every two weeks.