Europe's first case of new COVID-19 variant detected in Belgium; world takes action

'We have a case that is now confirmed of this variant,' B.1.1.529, first detected in southern Africa, Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke told a media conference

Agence France-Presse November 26, 2021 22:33:35 IST
Europe's first case of new COVID-19 variant detected in Belgium; world takes action

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen delivers a media statement on the coronavirus disease pandemic at the European Commission headquarters in Brussels on Friday. AFP

Brussels: Belgium said Friday it has detected the first announced case in Europe of the new COVID-19 variant, in an unvaccinated person returning from abroad.

"We have a case that is now confirmed of this variant," B.1.1.529, first detected in southern Africa, Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke told a media conference.

The infected person tested positive on 22 November and had not had COVID-19 before, he added, without giving further details.

A leading Belgian virologist, Marc Van Ranst, tweeted that the person had returned from Egypt on 11 November.

Vandebroucke said: "It must be repeated that this is a suspect variant — we don't know if it is a very dangerous variant."

"So, total precaution but don't panic," he said, adding that Belgium's COVID-19 risk assessment group was analysing the situation.

World takes action

Meanwhile, Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands on Friday joined Britain in banning most travel from South Africa as governments scramble to prevent the spread of a new COVID-19 variant with a large number of mutations.

In a sign of the growing alarm, the European Union separately proposed prohibiting travel from southern Africa.

The EU's executive "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," EU chief Ursula Von der Leyen tweeted Friday.

Germany's new travel restrictions, starting Friday night, will affect South Africa and "probably neighbouring nations", Spahn said, with only German nationals allowed entry.

They must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival even if vaccinated.

"The last thing we need now is an introduced new variant that causes even more problems," Spahn said, with Germany in the grip of a ferocious fourth wave of the pandemic.

In Rome, the government on Friday announced it was banning entry to those who have been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia or Eswatini in the past fortnight.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza said scientists were studying the new B.1.1.529 variant, "and in the meantime, we will follow the path of maximum caution".

Britain announced that all flights from South Africa and its same neighbours would be prohibited starting 1200 GMT on Friday.

South Africa sharply condemned Britain's decision.

"Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK's decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps," the foreign ministry said in a statement.

'Suspect variant'

"It must be repeated that this is a suspect variant — we don't know if it is a very dangerous variant," said Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke.

The strain has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa.

Israel said it has quarantined three people, one having just returned from Malawi. Japan said it will require a 10-day quarantine period for travellers from the area.

The shock measures all included South Africa, and in many cases some or all of the following: Botswana, Eswatini (Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

"The last thing we need now is an introduced new variant that causes even more problems," Germany's acting health minister Jens Spahn said as his country battled a ferocious fourth wave of the pandemic.

The Philippines also suspended flights from South Africa, Botswana "and other countries with local cases or with the likelihood of occurrences," according to the president's spokesman.

Markets plummet

The rush to close off southern Africa comes a day after scientists in Johannesburg said they had detected the new strain with at least 10 mutations, compared with two for the Delta.

The variant is of "serious concern" and had been blamed for a surge in infection numbers, authorities in South Africa said.

The WHO said it was "closely monitoring" the variant and weighing whether it should be designated a variant of "interest" or of "concern".

It was also up to WHO to decide whether to give the strain a name taken from the Greek alphabet, as for previous major variants such as Delta.

Some, such as the European Commission, have already taken that step and were calling it the Nu variant.

'Knee-jerk'

Spooked European markets fell close by three percent, with airline shares especially hit. Tokyo closed down 2.53 percent.

Vincent Enouf, of the Pasteur Institute in Paris, told AFP that the variant "is something very particular that can be worrying" given its genetic composition.

But, he said: "We must remain reasonable, continue to monitor it and not completely alarm the population."

The European Medicines Agency said it was "premature" to talk about modifying current vaccines to target the new variant.

Germany's BioNTech and US drugmaker Pfizer said they were studying the variant, with impact data expected "in two weeks at the latest" to say whether their jointly developed vaccine should be adjusted if B.1.1.529 spreads globally.

In South Africa, meanwhile, helpless and furious tour operators deplored the quick end to the tourist season with safaris and beach holidays cancelled by the thousands.

"This is a knee-jerk reaction but with such a strong snowball effect," said tour organiser Richard de la Rey.

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