Countries in Europe and Asia on Friday took swift action to halt travel from several African countries over a mutated COVID-19 strain that was blamed by officials for a rise in cases in South Africa.
Even though the World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday cautioned against imposing travel restrictions on those countries regarding the so-called B.1.1.529 variant, the European Union announced it would propose stopping air travel from southern Africa.
“It is now important that all of us in Europe act very swiftly, decisively, and united,” the chief of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said in a Twitter post on Friday. The 27-member bloc of nations should place the “emergency brake” on travel, she argued.
The United Kingdom, meanwhile, implemented travel restrictions to and from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), and Lesotho, officials announced Friday.
In Japan, officials confirmed Friday that they would place a 10-day quarantine requirement on anyone traveling from southern Africa. They will also have to take a total of four COVID-19 tests during that timeframe.
“The key to crisis management is to prepare for the worst,” cabinet secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said Friday, according to the Japan Times newspaper.
COVID-19 is the disease caused by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus.
In Hong Kong, local officials confirmed two cases of the new strain. Hong Kong health authorities confirmed that it would bar entry to non-residents who previously stayed in eight southern African countries within 21 days.
German officials said they are considering a ban on the region as soon as Friday night. Italian officials also announced a travel ban Friday.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn.
And Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett announced around the same time that his nation is “on the verge of a state of emergency” because of the new variant. It came after the Israeli Health Ministry said that an individual from Malawi tested positive for the new strain, according to local media reports.
As a result, Israel also expanded a travel ban on southern African countries Friday. Bennett said a few cases had been reported in Israel, including at least a person who had already received a vaccine booster shot.
Bennett, in public remarks, asserted that COVID-19 vaccines are still effective but qualified his statement by saying “it might mean they are effective to a certain degree.” Israel has a strict vaccine passport system, known as a “green pass,” that blocks unvaccinated people from entering a number of different businesses and venues.
As countries moved to restrict travel, WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier confirmed the U.N. health agency is holding a closed-door meeting in Geneva. Participants met to designate the COVID-19 strain, known as B.1.1.529, as either a variant of concern or a variant of interest.
“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” Lindmeier told a U.N. briefing in Geneva, according to the Reuters news agency. “The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures.”
Regarding the strain, “we don’t know very much about this yet,” Maria van Kerkhove, who works as an epidemiologist for WHO on COVID-19, said in public comments.
“What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations,” she said. “And the concern is when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.”