Spain suspends flights with South Africa and Botswana over new Covid variant

Spain ban on flights from South Africa
So far seven European countries have banned flights from South Africa. Photo: Michele Spatari / AFP
Spain will cancel flights from South Africa and Botswana from Tuesday over the worrying new Covid-19 variant detected in the southern African nations, Spanish health minister Carolina Darias announced on Friday.

The restrictions will only affect flights from South Africa and Botswana for the time being, said Darias, but it may include other high-risk countries in the near future.

The news comes after the discovery of a worrying new Covid variant, known as B.1.1.529, that is believed to have more than thirty mutations. For now, no cases of this variant have been detected in Spain.

Spain is one of seven EU countries which have so far cancelled flight connections between the southern African nations. The UK and Israel have also imposed restrictions.

This is the second time Spain imposes a travel ban on South Africa over variant fears, but for the past few months fully vaccinated travellers from South Africa have been able to visit Spain.

There are currently no direct flights between Spain and the two African nations, but from Tuesday November 30th passengers on connecting flights will not be able to board the leg of the journey which takes them to Spain, or will be prevented from doing so before leaving southern Africa. 

Not much is known about the new variant – which is still called B.1.1.529 as it hasn’t yet been given a Greek title by the World Health Organisation.
 
However, experts say that the extraordinarily high number of mutations suggest that it is highly infectious and particularly taxing on human immune systems.
 
For comparison, the highly contagious Delta variant had two mutations, while Beta had three.
 
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla described the variant as “seriously worrying” and likely behind an “exponential” increase in reported cases in South Africa in previous days.
 
He said it had been striking how sharply the infection figures had risen in recent days – after months with very few positive tests.
 
There are also concerns that B.1.1.529 could be resistant to the Covid vaccines that have been developed so far, though scientists haven’t been able to determine this yet.
 
In a sign of the growing alarm around the new ‘supervariant’, the European Union separately called on states to prohibit travel from countries in southern Africa.
 
The EU’s executive body “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.
 
The first case in Europe of the new variant was identified in Belgium in an unvaccinated young adult woman.

South Africa’s Minister of International Relations and Cooperation issued a statement this Friday after the first announcement from the United Kingdom to suspend flights, calling it a “a hasty decision”.


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