Europe closes to protect itself from covid-19 variant detected in South Africa

A new variant of the coronavirus detected in South Africa, apparently very contagious, caused several European countries, where the pandemic has been raging for weeks, decided this Friday to close their doors to travelers from various southern African states.

The first country to shield itself was the United Kingdom, which announced Thursday that it will ban the entry of people from six African countries: South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Eswatini (or Swaziland) from Friday.

This Friday, the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said on Twitter that she will propose to “activate the emergency brake to interrupt flights from the southern African region” during a meeting scheduled for Friday.

“The situation is evolving very fast, we want to have the maximum guarantees to stop the expansion of this variant,” a spokesman for the European Commission told AFP.

But several countries, such as Germany, France and Italy, did not wait for the go-ahead from Brussels.

“The last thing we need now is a new variant that causes more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn, a country where the coronavirus has been advancing strongly for weeks.

Italy also announced that it was banning entry into its territory for anyone who has been in southern Africa in the “last 14 days”.

The coronavirus has left more than 5.16 million deaths worldwide since its appearance in China at the end of 2019, although the WHO estimates that the real figures could be much higher.

Europe, which has already exceeded 1.5 million deaths in the pandemic, has experienced a worrying increase in covid-19 cases for weeks.

The appearance of this new variant also caused the main European stock exchanges to open with declines of more than 3% and drove the price of a barrel of crude oil down.

The World Health Organization (WHO), whose experts are meeting this Friday, announced that it will take “several weeks” to better understand the “impact” of this variant and determine its virulence.

Variant B.1.1.529 has an “extremely high” number of mutations and “we can see that it has a very high potential for spread,” predicted on Thursday the Brazilian virologist Tulio de Oliveira, based in South Africa and director of the KRISP, a center specialized in the study of the coronavirus in Durban where the beta variant was already discovered last year.

South Africa, which is officially the country most affected by the virus on the continent, has so far registered 22 cases of this variant, mainly in young people, according to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD, for its acronym in English). Cases were also reported in neighboring Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel, in a person from Malawi.

The news of this new variant complicates the outlook for Europe, which is once again in the eye of the pandemic hurricane. The WHO has warned that there may be an additional 700,000 deaths in the region until March if urgent measures are not taken.

Several countries have begun to reinstate restrictions and to try to expedite the vaccination of reluctant citizens and in many cases they face boredom and social rejection.

This Friday, the Dutch government plans to announce a tightening of sanitary restrictions, such as the closure of bars and restaurants at 5:00 p.m. local time and the police “prepare” for new demonstrations and riots.

The country, where a partial lockdown is already in force, saw violent protests last weekend in various cities, including Rotterdam and The Hague.

In Belgium, the increase in cases and hospitalizations related to covid is “higher than the most pessimistic forecasts,” according to Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, whose government will meet urgently this Friday to decide on new measures.

In France, the government also made health announcements on Thursday, mainly aimed at speeding up vaccination and increasing precautions to prevent the number of infections from soaring.

In the European Union at this time, 67.7% of the population has received at least two doses of the vaccine, although the differences between countries are notorious.

bur-bl / zm

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