Belgium reports first case of mutant COVID virus as EU moots southern Africa travel ban

Belgium reports the first case of the COVID variant as the European Commission recommends an ‘emergency brake’ on travel with southern Africa

Belgium has been the first European country to record a case with the new COVID variant
Belgium has been the first European country to record a case with the new COVID variant

Belgium is the first European country to report a case of the heavily-mutated new COVID-19 variant identified in South Africa.

The announcement came as the European Commission is recommending that EU member states introduce an ‘emergency brake’ on travel from southern Africa in response to the new coronavirus variant.

However, as the Belgian case shows, a travel ban may prove futile.

The Belgian case was revealed by virologist Marc Van Ranst whose lab works with Belgium’s public health authorities. The lab had been testing two suspicious samples and one of them has turned out to be the B.1.1.529 variant, soon to be named Nu.

The virus variant was detected in a returning traveller from Egypt, who arrived in Belgium on 11 November but displayed the first symptoms on 22 November.

It is unclear whether the patient contracted the virus in Egypt or in Belgium.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen says the proposed travel ban will help "limit the spread" of the variant, recommending all air travel to affected countries be suspended.

She said returning travellers from the region should “respect strict quarantine rules.”

The new variant has multiple mutations, which scientists fear could allow it to avoid the immunity provided by the current vaccines. The variant also appears to be more contagious.

Studies are still underway to determine the characteristics of the variant, which the World Health Organisation has said is of concern.

Several countries have banned travel to and from six southern African countries, including South Africa where the variant was detected.

Earlier today, Malta announced that a temporary travel ban on travel to and from the affected region will come into force on midnight tomorrow. The ban concerns travel to and from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.

Other EU member states have pre-empted the EC’s plan and announced travel bans of their own with southern Africa.