As it happened

Global rush to ban travellers from southern Africa over new Covid-19 variant

The discovery in South Africa of a new coronavirus variant triggered global alarm on Friday as countries rushed to suspend travel from a number of countries in southern Africa and stock markets on both sides of the Atlantic suffered their biggest falls in more than a year.

A departures screen displays a cancelled flight to Johannesburg and a message to contact the airline for a scheduled flight to Capetown at London's Heathrow Airport on November 26, 2021.
A departures screen displays a cancelled flight to Johannesburg and a message to contact the airline for a scheduled flight to Capetown at London's Heathrow Airport on November 26, 2021. © Alberto Pezzali, AP

The World Health Organization (WHO) said the new variant, which it named Omicron, may spread more quickly than other variants of Covid-19 and preliminary evidence suggested there is an increased risk of reinfection.

Epidemiologists warned travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating globally. The new mutations were first discovered in South Africa and have since been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.

Read FRANCE 24’s coverage of the day’s events.

21:11 Paris time

Stock markets and oil prices plunge over fears of new variant

Stock markets and oil prices fell sharply on Friday over fears of the new variant that scientists warn could be more infectious than the Delta strain and more resistant to vaccines, potentially dealing a heavy blow to the global economic recovery.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average saw its worst drop of the year as Wall Street indices plunged and the dollar floundered, while haven investments such as the yen and Swiss franc rallied.

"It's a single-track market today," said Ross Mayfield, investment strategy analyst at Baird, pointing to fears that the new variant could be worse than the Delta strain, which slowed US growth and hiring in the third quarter.

"I think the market's reaction to the level of uncertainty being faced right now, especially near all-time highs before this, probably makes some sense," he said.  

US crude oil prices tumbled more than 13 percent and the main international contract lost nearly 12 percent, which CMC Markets analyst Michael Hewson attributed to "concerns that this new mutation could add to the pressure on demand”.

20:34 Paris time

WHO names new COVID variant omicron

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday classified the B.1.1.529 variant detected in South Africa as a SARS-CoV-2 "variant of concern," saying it may spread more quickly than other forms.

Preliminary evidence suggested there is an increased risk of reinfection and there had been a "detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology," it said in a statement after a closed meeting of independent experts who reviewed the data.

Infections in South Africa had risen steeply in recent weeks, coinciding with detection of the variant now designated as omicron, WHO said.

"This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other (variants of concern), it said.

Omicron is the fifth variant to carry such a designation.

"This variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage," the WHO said.

Current PCR tests continue to successfully detect the variant, it said.

20:27 Paris time

US and Canada restrict travel from southern African countries

The United States announced it is restricting travel from eight southern African countries over fears of a new variant of Covid-19 detected in South Africa.

Travel will be mostly banned starting Monday from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, a senior official in President Joe Biden's administration said.

Only US citizens and permanent residents will still be able to travel from the eight countries, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added.

"The policy was implemented out of an abundance of caution in light of a new Covid-19 variant circulating in Southern Africa," the official said.

"Our scientists and public health officials are working quickly to learn more about this variant," the official added.

"President Biden has promised to take every measure necessary to keep Americans safe and defeat the pandemic, and this was a step recommended by US government medical experts and the Covid-19 Response Team."

Canada's Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced on a ban travelers from seven African countries - Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe - over concerns about the spread of a new Covid strain.

There are no direct flights to Canada from the seven nations listed in the ban.

Canadian travelers arriving indirectly from the region will be required to obtain a pre-flight negative Covid test and quarantine for 14 days on arrival in the country.

The travel restrictions will be in place until January 31, while officials "assess the evolving situation," said Transport Minister Omar Alghabra.

18:32 Paris time

EU to activate ‘emergency break’ and restrict travel from southern Africa

European Union member states have agreed to restrict travel from southern Africa after the detection of a new Covid-19 variant, the presidency of the EU said on Friday.

A committee of health experts from all 27 EU states "agreed on the need to activate the emergency break & impose temporary restriction on all travel into EU from southern Africa", the Slovenian presidency of the EU said on Twitter.

Restrictions will apply to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said on Twitter.

"Tests, quarantine and contact tracing for incoming passengers are important," he wrote.

17:35 Paris time

South Africa’s health minister says travel bans ‘unjustified’

South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla confirmed that preliminary studies suggest a new Covid-19 variant detected in his country may be more transmissible, but he said that the decision of other countries to impose restrictions on travel to and from South Africa is “unjustified”.

Phaahla told a media briefing on Friday that South Africa was acting with transparency, and that travel bans contravene the norms and standards of the World Health Organization. He said that the “knee-jerk reaction” does not make sense, as “many countries which have taken draconian measures are themselves battling infection waves”.

16:47 Paris time

EU drug regulator: Too early to know if variant requires updated vaccine

The EU’s drug regulator said on Friday it was closely monitoring the new B.1.1.529 variant of Covid-19 but it was "premature" to tell if updated vaccines would be needed to fight it.

“EMA considers it premature at the moment to foresee the need of an adapted vaccine with a different composition in order to tackle this emerging variant,” the European Medicines Agency said in a statement to AFP.

14:52 Paris time

Japan introduces 10-day quarantine over variant

Japan said Friday it will require a 10-day quarantine period for travellers arriving from six countries after the discovery in South Africa of a new Covid-19 variant.

From Saturday, Tokyo will ask travellers coming from South Africa and neighbouring Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana to stay at designated facilities on arrival.

They will also be tested immediately after landing, as well as three other times during their 10-day quarantine, the government said.

"We have seen reports that it might be more transmissible (than other variants) and that the effectiveness of vaccines against it might be uncertain," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno said.

"So we have decided to take utmost precaution," he told a press conference, adding that no cases of the variant had been discovered in Japan.

14:36 Paris time 

Belgium announces first case of new Covid-19 variant

Belgium said it has detected the first announced case in Europe of the new Covid-19 variant, in an unvaccinated person returning from abroad.

"We have a case that is now confirmed of this variant,"  B.1.1.529, first detected in southern Africa, Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke told a media conference.

14:21 Paris time

Spain to suspend flights to South Africa and Botswana

Spain will also suspend flights to South Africa and Botswana from Tuesday over concerns about the highly contagious B.1.1.529 Covid-19 variant there, state broadcaster TVE reported on Friday, following similar decisions by other European nations.

The Health Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

13:36 Paris time 

Belgium imposes restrictions to reduce social contact 

The Belgian government brought in new restrictions on Friday such as early closing of bars and full closure of nightclubs for three weeks to reduce social contact amid an infection surge. 

"We are confronted with a situation now that is worse than the most pessimistic view of the experts from only two weeks ago," Belgian premier Alexander De Croo told a news conference, saying that the strain on the health service was mounting. 

The new measures come just a week after a previous package of coronavirus restrictions, including enforcing wider use of masks and more working from home. 

Under the new rules, Christmas markets, cultural sites, bars and restaurants will have to close at 11pm, with a maximum of six people per table. Private parties and gatherings are also banned, unless they are for weddings or funerals. 

13:20 Paris time

WHO cautions against travel curbs over new Covid variant 

The WHO has cautioned against imposing travel restrictions due to the B.1.1.529 Covid-19 variant, saying it would take weeks to understand the implications of the newly discovered strain. 

The World Health Organization said its Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) was holding a meeting Friday to discuss the variant first detected through surveillance in South Africa. 

"Early analysis shows that this variant has a large number of mutations that require and will undergo further study,” spokesman Christian Lindmeie. "It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has.” 

But the WHO is cautious on imposing travel restrictions relating to Covid-19. 

"At this point, again, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against," Lindmeier said. 

13:16 Paris time

Merck says Covid-19 pill cuts hospitalisation, death risk  

Merck & Co Inc said on Friday its experimental Covid-19 pill reduced the risk of hospitalisation and death by 30 percent in a study, according to data from all the patients enrolled in a late-stage study. 

The company said the data on the drug molnupiravir, developed with Ridgeback Biotherapeutics, had been submitted to the US Food and Drug Administration ahead of a meeting of its expert advisers next week. 

A planned interim analysis of the data last month showed that 7.3 percent of those given molnupiravir twice a day for five days were hospitalised and none had died by 29 days after the treatment. That compared with a hospitalisation rate of 14.1 percent for placebo patients. 

In the updated data, 6.8 percent of those given molnupiravir were hospitalised and one person died, while the other placebo group had a hospitalisation rate of 9.7 percent. 

11:43 Paris time

France suspends flights from southern Africa 

French Health Minister Olivier Véran on Friday said France suspended flights arriving from the southern African region for 48 hours. The new variant has not yet been detected in France, Véran added. 

11:15 Paris time 

Singapore, Malaysia curb arrivals 

Singapore and Malaysia will restrict arrivals from seven African countries, health officials said Friday. The restrictions apply to South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. 

Citizens and foreigners holding permanent resident status will be allowed to return to Singapore and Malaysia, but will have to undergo quarantine, health officials in both countries said. 

Malaysia also banned its citizens from visiting the seven affected nations. 

The curbs will kick in over the weekend in both countries. 

Neither country has detected the new variant, but Singapore's health ministry said it was seeking to "take the necessary precautions to reduce the risks" of it reaching the city-state. 

10:48 Paris time

German air force to move ICU patients as cases rise 

The German air force will begin assisting the transfer of intensive care patients Friday as the government warned that the situation in the country is more serious than at any point in the pandemic. 

Citing the sharp rise in cases, Health Minister Jens Spahn said contacts between people need to be sharply reduced to curb the spread of the virus. 

“The situation is dramatically serious, more serious than it's been at any point in the pandemic,” he told reporters in Berlin. 

German news agency dpa reported that a Luftwaffe A310 medevac plane will fly seriously ill patients from the southern town of Memmingen to North Rhine-Westphalia state Friday afternoon. 

Hospitals in southern and eastern regions of Germany have warned they are running out of intensive care beds because of the large number of seriously ill Covid-19 patients. 

The country's disease control agency said 76,414 newly confirmed cases were reported in the past 24 hours. The Robert Koch Institute, a government agency, said Germany also had 357 new deaths from Covid-19, taking the total since the start of the outbreak to 100,476. 

10:15 Paris time

EU plans 'emergency brake to stop air travel' from southern Africa

In a statement posted on Twitter Friday, EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said she would "propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region".

A new coronavirus variant has been detected in South Africa that scientists say is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.

The proposal comes as the 27-nation bloc is battling a massive spike in cases.

The latest spike is hitting the EU especially badly, with governments scrambling to tighten restrictions in an attempt to contain spread. The flight ban proposal came in the wake of similar action from Britain on Thursday.

The EU proposal came a day after scientists in South Africa said they had detected the new B.1.1.529 strain with at least 10 mutations, compared with two for the Delta variant.

10:09 (Paris time)

Israel finds case of new strain

Israel has identified a case of a Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations first detected in South Africa, the health ministry said Friday.

"The variant discovered in southern African states has been identified in Israel," the ministry said, adding it was recorded "in a person who returned from Malawi".

Two more cases were detected in "people returning from abroad", it said, adding that they had been placed in quarantine.

The three people were all vaccinated, the health ministry said, without specifying the number of doses or the type of vaccine.

9:38 Paris time

WHO meeting on Friday to designate new variant

The World Health Organization is convening an experts' meeting from Geneva  on Friday to assess the new variant, said WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier.

"WHO is convening a meeting ... to better understand the timeline for studies that are under way and to determine if this variant should be designated as a variant of interest or variant of concern," he said.

Nearly 100 sequences of the variant have been reported, and early analysis shows it has "a large number of mutations" requiring further study, Lindmeier said.

The WHO had no comment so far on travel restrictions imposed by some authorities on southern African countries linked to the variant, he added.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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