Malta bans travel from south African countries hit by COVID variant causing global fear

A highly mutated COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa is causing global concern • Malta, Britain, Italy, Germany, France, Netherlands, Austria and Czechia ban travel to and from the region

The new COVID variant discovered in South Africa is causing global concern
The new COVID variant discovered in South Africa is causing global concern

There is growing concern from the World Health Organisation, about a new highly mutated coronavirus variant in South Africa, foreseen as possibly one of the worst variants yet.

The discovery is relatively new and the confirmed cases are concentrated in the Gauteng province in South Africa, with 77 confirmed cases. Four cases were registered in Botswana and one in Hong Kong, directly linked to travel from South Africa. On Friday, Israel also announced it had detected two cases of the new variant linked to travel from Malawi.

The highly mutated virus is causing global fear that it could evade immunity provided by existing vaccines.

Malta is banning travel from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe, Health Minister Chris Fearne said on Friday. The temporary ban comes into force at midnight on Saturday. This follows similar decisions taken by the UK and Italy to ban travel to and from the south African states.

However, as the day progressed, more European countries announced travel bans to the region. The EU is also considering an EU-wide travel ban.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, said there was an "unusual constellation of mutations" and that it was "very different" to other variants that have circulated.

The variant, is for the time being called B.1.1.529, and is yet to be assigned a Greek alphabet code-name, similar to the previous ones like Alpha and Delta.The World Health Organization’s technical working group is set to meet on Friday in order to assess the situation.

“It’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses here, especially with relation to South Africa,” Dr Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s emergencies program, said.

The British government announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.

“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said.