UK suspending flights from 6 African countries over new coronavirus variant fears: ‘Our scientists are deeply concerned’

Britain's Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid.
Britain's Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid.
  • A new coronavirus variant has been identified in Botswana and South Africa.
  • Dubbed "B.1.1.529," it has many mutations, concerning scientists and the World Health Organization.
  • The UK instituted travel restrictions on Thursday for six African countries following the news. 

The United Kingdom has added six African countries to its "red" travel list and temporarily suspended flights over concerns about a new coronavirus variant. 

Sajid Javid, UK secretary of state for health and social care, made the announcement on Thursday shortly after the World Health Organization gave a briefing about the variant, dubbed B.1.1.529. It was initially identified in Botswana. Cases have sprung up there and in South Africa.

South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, and Zimbabwe are on the "red list," which entails that there are more travel restrictions for people who live in the UK. People that don't live in the UK aren't allowed to travel into the UK from these countries.

Javid said that the variant hasn't been detected in the UK yet and that its implications are still unclear. But based on the early indications, it may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, and our current vaccines may be less effective against it, he said. 

"Our scientists are deeply concerned about this variant. I'm concerned, of course, that's one of the reasons we have taken this action," Javid said during the briefing.

Delta, a variant first spotted in 2020, currently accounts for 99.9% of new coronavirus cases in the US, per ABC News. It had mutations compared to the last strain that helped make it more infectious by comparison. 

The newest variant, which will likely be assigned a Greek codename similar to Delta and the formerly-dominant Alpha variant by the WHO, has more than 50 mutations overall, and more than 30 on the spike protein, Prof Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation in South Africa, said during a briefing on Thursday.

The variant seems to be responsible for an uptick in coronavirus cases in South Africa, per officials. At least 100 cases have been confirmed through sequencing samples, up from just 10 recorded cases on Wednesday.

After Sunday morning, people traveling into the UK from the designated African countries will need to quarantine for 10 days in government-approved hotels, per Javid. Starting midday Friday, the government is suspending all flights from the countries until the hotel quarantine system is up and running, according to the BBC.

The WHO will be meeting on Friday to further analyze the situation. Javid stressed that we don't know enough about the variant yet, but said that the restrictions were meant to protect the UK's progress to date. 

"It's a real reminder to us all that this pandemic is not over," he said.

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