UK Stops Flights From Southern Africa Over Covid Variant Worries

People wait for passengers at one of the International Arrivals halls at London Heathrow Airport on Feb. 14. Photographer: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

LONDON (Bloomberg) – The U.K. will temporarily ban flights from South Africa and five other African countries over worries about a new, dramatically different Covid-19 variant recently identified there.

The travel restrictions go into effect at noon Friday and are a precautionary measure to keep the spread of the new variant in check, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said. The six countries will be placed on the U.K.’s red list as of Sunday, requiring travelers to quarantine in hotels upon arrival.

Scientists are still trying to determine whether the new variant, called B.1.1529, is more transmissible and more lethal than the versions of the virus that have dominated the pandemic thus far. Health authorities will also screen travelers who have recently landed from South Africa, where the new variant has been spreading.

In addition to South Africa, the countries covered by the new restrictions are Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana, the Press Association reported.

While questions abound about the new variant, what’s clear is that it has the most mutations of any strain yet identified and that it’s very different from previous incarnations of the virus. That’s raised concerns both inside South Africa and internationally, with authorities fearing a wave of cases that could increase the pressure on already strained health-care systems.

In South Africa, virologists have detected almost 100 cases linked to the variant to date, according to Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist and head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. World Health Organization officials have met to discuss the variant, which has also been detected in Botswana, where it’s been found in people who were vaccinated against Covid.

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