Omicron COVID Variant Fears Spark Global Travel Restrictions on Southern Africa

Britain, Singapore, Japan and Israel have imposed restrictions on travel from southern Africa as concerns grow over a new COVID-19 variant that carries a high number of mutations.

The Omicron variant that first emerged in Botswana, has now been detected in South Africa, Hong Kong and Israel. In total, 84 confirmed cases have been identified so far, according to an online tracker.

On Friday, the World Health Organization renamed the B.1.1.529 strain the Omicron COVID variant using the Greek alphabet naming system and classified it as a "variant of concern."

Nations have swiftly moved to roll out travel restrictions as part of measures to curb its spread from the region, amid concerns that the strain could evade immunity.

The U.K. on Thursday night said it would temporarily ban flights from South Africa and five neighboring countries, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe, effective noon on Friday. Quarantine requirements have also been imposed on returning British travellers.

Shortly after the U.K. announced the measures, Israel followed suit, adding the same countries, as well as Mozambique to its red list. On Friday, Singapore and Japan also announced measures to restrict travel from South Africa and neighboring regions, while Australia and New Zealand said that they are assessing the situation closely.

Meanwhile, Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, announced Friday in a statement on Twitter that the commission is proposing, 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."

Her comment comes as the EU is already seeing a significant surge in COVID-19 cases. The World Health Organization (WHO) said earlier this month that Europe is once again the epicenter of the pandemic, contributing to nearly three-fifths of recent global coronavirus cases.

Dr. Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, said on Twitter on Wednesday that although confirmed cases of the Omicron variant are low, he believes the situation should be monitored due to the number of mutations in its spike protein. The variant has the most mutations of any strain identified so far, with 32 mutations in the spike protein—the part that latches to cells in the body.

"Worth emphasising this is at super low numbers right now in a region of Africa that is fairly well sampled, however it very very much should be monitored due to that horrific spike profile (would take a guess that this would be worse antigenically than nearly anything else about)," he wrote.

While it hasn't yet been classified as a variant of concern by the WHO, according to U.K. officials, the agency is meeting with authorities from South Africa on Friday to discuss the strain.

"We don't know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves," Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's technical lead on COVID-19, said during a Q&A on Thursday.

South Africa has responded by saying that it believes Britain's move to restrict travel from the region appears rushed.

"Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries," South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement.

Two COVID-19 patients in Cape Town
Two patients with COVID-19, one (L) breathing in oxygen, is seen in the COVID-19 ward at Khayelitsha Hospital, about 35km from the centre of Cape Town, on December 29, 2020. A new COVID-19 variant has sparked global travel restrictions amid fears of a new wave. RODGER BOSCH/AFP/Getty Images