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COVID variant Omicron spreading from southern Africa

COVID variant Omicron spreading from southern Africa

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European Union (EU) nations will impose an emergency flight ban on countries in southern Africa after the discovery of a new coronavirus variant there, an EU Commission spokesperson has said.

Eric Mamer said member states agreed to the ban after Europe’s first case of the variant was discovered in Belgium.

The variant, named Omicron, has also been identified in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared it a variant of concern.

Health chiefs from all 27 EU states agreed to impose the travel ban in an emergency meeting on Friday, Mamer wrote on Twitter.

The ban will be applied to travellers from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, he said.

Scientists say they still have much to learn about the virus’s new mutations and the WHO has said it will take a few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant, as experts work to determine how transmissible it is.

The WHO on Friday said preliminary evidence suggested the new variant carried a higher risk of reinfection than other variants.

Scientists have said it is the most heavily mutated version yet, which means Covid vaccines, which were designed using the original strain from Wuhan, may not be as effective.

Stock markets across the world fell sharply on Friday, amid investor fears over the potential economic impact.

In London, the FTSE 100 share index dropped by nearly 3%, while markets in Germany and France also declined following falls in Asia.

The WHO says so far fewer than 100 sample sequences have been reported. Cases have mainly been confirmed in South Africa, but have also been detected in Hong Kong, Israel, Botswana and Belgium.

UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Friday that the variant is “highly likely” to have spread to other countries.

Most of the cases in South Africa have been from its most populated province, Gauteng, of which Johannesburg is the capital city.

Only about 24% of South Africa’s population is fully vaccinated, which could spur a rapid spread of cases there, Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), told the BBC on Friday.

In Hong Kong, the infections were found in a person who had arrived from South Africa, and a guest in the same quarantine hotel who tested positive a few days later, the Department of Health revealed. Both were fully vaccinated.

Europe has identified its first case of the variant in Belgium. Belgian media reports suggest that the case emerged in an unvaccinated young woman who had recently travelled from Egypt via Turkey and developed mild flu symptoms 11 days later.

Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Friday it is “on the verge of a state of emergency” regarding the new variant, and that he would “act fast, strong and now”.

One case was detected in a person who returned from Malawi, according to Israeli media reports quoting the country’s health ministry. Another two suspected infections were yet to be confirmed with test results. All three are said to have been fully vaccinated. (BBC)