BEIJING – A growing number of countries and regions are suspending flights from southern African countries due to a new variant of the coronavirus, which has sparked serious concern among scientists and researchers, and triggered air travel restrictions and a massive slump of stocks in Asia, Europe and the United States.

The World Health Organization (WHO) declared on Friday the latest variant B.1.1.529 of SARS-CoV-2 to be “of concern,” its most serious level, and officially gave it the Greek name Omicron. The WHO has asked countries to enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to fight the new variant.

VARIANT WITH MORE SPIKE MUTATIONS

The new variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on Wednesday. It has so far been identified in other places, including Botswana, Belgium, Israel and China’s Hong Kong.  Scientists are still unclear whether existing antibodies would react well to Omicron, which has 32 spike protein mutations, more than previously found variants. “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” said the WHO.

“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs (variants of concern).”
Dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, has posted details of the new variant on a genome-sharing website and said in a thread of tweets that it “very, very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile.” 

“Given the large number of mutations it has accumulated apparently in a single burst, it likely evolved during a chronic infection of an immunocompromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient,” said Francois Balloux, professor of computational systems biology and director of the Genetics Institute at University College London.

British Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned the new strain could be more transmissible than the Delta variant and that there is a “possibility it might have a different impact on individuals” who get the virus. Botswana’s Health Ministry has reported four cases of the new variant on Friday, saying that it is conducting further investigations and sample analysis to gain more knowledge and understanding about the properties and behavior of the virus.

WORLD BECOMES VIGILANT

A number of countries and regions have suspended air travel from the southern African region and imposed strict quarantine measures in fear of importing the new variant. The White House said later Friday that the United States will restrict air travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi beginning on Monday. 

The British government has added South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia to the country’s travel red list. Passengers arriving in Britain from these countries from 0400 GMT on Sunday will be required to quarantine in designated hotels for 10 days.

On Friday, Germany, France, Italy, Ireland and some other European Union (EU) countries have also introduced travel restrictions to ban the arrival of travelers who have been to southern African states with follow-up measures of strict quarantine. 

“The European Commission will propose, in close coordination with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter. Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Saturday that the country will introduce a 14-day quarantine for citizens and their dependents traveling from nine countries in southern Africa due to the new coronavirus variant.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government announced on Friday that the boarding and quarantine requirements for persons arriving from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, along with South Africa, will be tightened from 0:00 a.m. local time Saturday (1600 GMT). International meetings are also affected. The World Trade Organization announced early Saturday morning that it had decided to postpone the 12th Ministerial Conference because the highly contagious new variant has caused a halt of air travel hindering ministers from attending it.

Widespread concern over the economic recovery has made financial markets jittery with slumps in the U.S., European and Asian stock markets. U.S. stocks plunged on Friday with the Dow Jones Industrial Average down 2.53 percent, the S&P 500 fell 2.27 percent, and the Nasdaq Composite Index decreased 2.23 percent. The UK’s benchmark FTSE 100 Index went down 3.64 percent, France’s CAC 40 Index dropped by 4.75 percent and the German DAX Index plummeted by 4.15 percent. On the same day, Tokyo stocks finished sharply lower with the Nikkei index logging a one-month low.

SCIENTIFIC MEASURES NEEDED

Though the spread of Omicron was surprisingly swift, researchers and public health authorities suggest no panic, calling for close monitoring and intensified research to optimize responsive measures. “For the time being, it should be closely monitored and analyzed, but there is no reason to get overly concerned, unless it starts going up in frequency in the near future,” British medical expert Balloux said.

Britain’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty also urged calm in the face of warnings about the Omicron mutation, saying concern should focus on “immediate threats.” “There are substantial uncertainty and panic due to the lack of reliable information related to the B.1.1.529 variant,” said Shao Yiming, a researcher at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

   China should continue to closely track the monitoring information from scientists in South Africa and the relevant WHO policies, Shao said. The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday urged African health authorities to intensify COVID-19 prevention measures in response.It called on African countries to expedite their COVID-19 vaccination drives to halt the spread of the virus, saying “vaccines remain a key tool to prevent severe cases and deaths from COVID-19 infection.”

While also reaffirming the conducive role of vaccines, the WHO expressed concerns over the travel ban triggered by the new variant strain. David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on COVID-19, suggested that South Africa was being “punished” for detecting the variant and informing the world, and it was “unfortunate” that flights from the country were being stopped.

South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla on Friday described the travel bans on South Africa and some Southern African Development Community countries as a knee-jerk reaction that is not based on scientific evidence. Phaahla called the bans “draconian” and “counterproductive.” He called on countries to work together to fight the pandemic instead of trying to blame others. – Xinhua News