European Union nations were moving to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday, seeking to counter the spread of a new COVID-19 variant as the 27-nation bloc battles a massive spike in cases.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that she “proposes, in close coordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region.”
Scientists say the new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.
Germany said von der Leyen’s proposal could be enacted as soon as Friday night. Spahn said airlines coming back from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home, and travelers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days whether they are vaccinated or not.
Italy’s health ministry also announced measures to ban entry into Italy of anyone who has been in seven southern African nations — South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini — in the past 14 days due to the new variant.
The Netherlands is planning similar measures. “These nations are considered high risk areas. It means a quarantine and double testing for travelers from these countries,” said Dutch Health Minister Hugo De Jonge.
In Israel, the health ministry said it has detected the country’s first case of the new coronavirus variant in a traveler who returned from Malawi. The traveler and two other suspected cases have been placed in isolation. It said all three are vaccinated but that it is currently looking into their exact vaccination status.
A fourth spike of the coronavirus is hitting the 27-nation EU especially badly, with governments scrambling to tighten restrictions in an attempt to contain spread. The flight ban proposal came in the wake of similar action from Britain on Thursday.
The U.K. announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries effective at noon on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the dominant delta strain, and “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective” against it, The AP reported.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.
Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa, he said.