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WHO meets amid global alarm over new Covid-19 variant found in southern Africa

LONDON — Countries across the world rushed Friday to identify potential cases and halt travel from southern Africa where a new variant of Covid-19 emerged as a sudden source of global alarm.

The global scramble to contain the new variant was met with a plea for caution from the World Health Organization (WHO), which convened Friday for an emergency meeting to assess it.

But stocks and oil prices tumbled on fears of another pandemic setback, and the U.S. woke up the day after Thanksgiving to the possibility of a more uncertain holiday period ahead.

Scientists are concerned by the new variant because of its high number of mutations and rapid early spread in South Africa.Denis Farrell / AP

Scientists are still learning about the variant, which was first identified earlier this week and is currently identified as B.1.1.529, but its concerning nature led to rapid developments as fears hit governments and markets alike.

The U.K. said late Thursday it was adding six African countries to its red list, banning all direct flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

They were joined by Israel, which announced Friday it was banning foreign travelers from all African countries, with the exception of North Africa, from entering the country.

European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted Friday that the 27-member bloc, already battling its own growing Covid crisis, would propose halting air travel from southern Africa. Singapore, Japan and Croatia also said they would restrict travel from the region, according to Reuters.

The U.K. Health Security Agency said it was investigating the B.1.1.529 variant, which it said includes a large number of mutations that may change its behavior with regard to vaccines, treatments and transmissibility.

“This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility,” said Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the U.K. Health Security Agency. “This is a clear reminder to everyone that this pandemic is not over.”

About 41 percent of South Africa’s adults have been vaccinated and the number of shots being given per day is relatively low.Waldo Swiegers / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

The variant was found earlier this week and has been discovered in South Africa and Botswana. The extent of the spread has yet to be determined, but a few cases were soon confirmed beyond Africa.

The Hong Kong government said Thursday that it had detected two cases, while Belgium became the first E.U. country to announce a case of the variant on Friday. Israel also said it had identified a case in a traveler returning from Malawi, with two other suspected cases placed in isolation. “We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned. “Our main principle is to act fast, strong and now.”

The WHO said in an emailed statement Friday that it was convening a meeting of its Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution to determine whether it should be designated as a “variant of interest” or “variant of concern.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist and Covid-19 technical lead at the World Health Organization, said Thursday that if it was designated it would be given a Greek name.

“We don’t know very much about this yet, what we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations,” Van Kerkhove said in a video on Thursday. “The concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.”

South Africa has been Africa’s worst-hit country in terms of total reported cases and deaths, but had been experiencing a lull in infections until last week.Emmanuel Croset / AFP via Getty Images file

The organization warned that it would take a few weeks for it to understand the impact this variant has.

“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,”  spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told a U.N. briefing in Geneva Friday, according to Reuters.

South Africa also pushed back against the U.K.’s temporary ban on flights from the region, describing it as “rushed.”

“Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” its minister of international relations and co-operation, Naledi Pandor, said in a statement Friday. 

The emergence of the new variant was already being felt around the world, however, where some had hoped that vaccination campaigns could mean a 2022 largely free of the restrictions and anxiety that dominated the past two years.

Oil prices and airline shares plunged, while major stock indexes fell in Europe and Asia and Dow Jones futures dipped 800 points ahead of the market opening in the U.S.

Global vaccination rates remain uneven, with citizens of some wealthy industrialized countries already being offered booster shots while other nations struggle to inoculate their populations due in part to lack of access and public hesitancy.

The global death toll from Covid-19 topped 5 million people earlier this month.

Vivi Vitalone, Associated Press and Reuters contributed.

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