WHO cautions against travel curbs over new Covid-19 variant detected in South Africa

GENEVA/MADRID (AFP, REUTERS) – The WHO on Friday (Nov 26) cautioned against imposing travel restrictions due to the B11529 Covid-19 variant, saying it would take weeks to understand the implications of the newly discovered strain.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said its Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) was holding a meeting on Friday to discuss the variant first detected through surveillance in South Africa.

The TAG-VE group began the virtual meeting at 1100 GMT to discuss whether B11529 should, at this stage, be classified as a variant of interest, or the more troubling variant of concern.

There are currently four variants of concern: Alpha, Beta, which was first documented in South Africa, Gamma and the overwhelmingly dominant Delta. There are also two variants of interest: Lambda and Mu.

As European nations began banning flights from South Africa, the United Nations health agency said countries should take a risk-based and scientific approach when considering travel curbs in light of the variant – but cautioned against restrictions.

“WHO is closely monitoring the recently reported variant B11529,” spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a media briefing in Geneva.

“Early analysis shows that this variant has a large number of mutations that require and will undergo further study. It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has.

“Researchers are working to understand more about the mutations and what they potentially mean for how transmissible or virulent this variant is, and how they may impact on diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.”

Germany and Italy on Friday joined Britain and other European countries in banning most travel from South Africa as governments scramble to prevent the spread of the new variant.

Singapore and Malaysia said they would restrict arrivals from seven African countries.

The WHO is cautious on imposing travel restrictions relating to Covid-19.

“At this point, again, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” said Mr Lindmeier.

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However, the head of the UN World Tourism Organisation (WTO) said on Friday that countries need to decide “today” on applying travel restrictions over the emergence of the new variant, and that they should make such rules uniform, especially in Europe.

“My recommendation will be to take decisions today, not after one week, because if it continues to spread as we are expecting then it will be late and will make no sense to apply restrictions,” said UN WTO Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili.

He added that countries need to follow recommendations by the WHO in drawing up travel rules.

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