Asian and European countries rushed to tighten restrictions on Friday after a new and possibly vaccine-resistant coronavirus variant was detected in South Africa, with Singapore and India announcing stricter border controls and more rigorous testing.
The variant has a spike protein that is dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that COVID-19 vaccines are based on, the UK Health Security Agency said.
Scientists are still learning about the variant, first identified at the start of this week, but the news pummelled financial markets, with stocks in Asia suffering their sharpest drop in three months and oil plunging more than 3%.
The variant, called B.1.1.529, has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, according to the UK Health Security Agency.
Britain temporarily banned flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini and asked returning British travellers from those destinations to quarantine.
Frequently Asked Questions
A vaccine works by mimicking a natural infection. A vaccine not only induces immune response to protect people from any future COVID-19 infection, but also helps quickly build herd immunity to put an end to the pandemic. Herd immunity occurs when a sufficient percentage of a population becomes immune to a disease, making the spread of disease from person to person unlikely. The good news is that SARS-CoV-2 virus has been fairly stable, which increases the viability of a vaccine.
There are broadly four types of vaccine — one, a vaccine based on the whole virus (this could be either inactivated, or an attenuated [weakened] virus vaccine); two, a non-replicating viral vector vaccine that uses a benign virus as vector that carries the antigen of SARS-CoV; three, nucleic-acid vaccines that have genetic material like DNA and RNA of antigens like spike protein given to a person, helping human cells decode genetic material and produce the vaccine; and four, protein subunit vaccine wherein the recombinant proteins of SARS-COV-2 along with an adjuvant (booster) is given as a vaccine.
Vaccine development is a long, complex process. Unlike drugs that are given to people with a diseased, vaccines are given to healthy people and also vulnerable sections such as children, pregnant women and the elderly. So rigorous tests are compulsory. History says that the fastest time it took to develop a vaccine is five years, but it usually takes double or sometimes triple that time.
Singapore swiftly joined Britain, with the health ministry saying it would restrict arrivals from South Africa and countries nearby as a precaution.
Italy imposed an entry ban on people who have visited a group of southern African states, including South Africa, in the last 14 days.
European countries had already been expanding booster vaccinations and tightening curbs as the continent battles a fourth wave of the coronavirus, led by the more familiar delta variant, with many countries reporting record daily rises in cases.
Germany reported a new record of more than 76,000 COVID-19 infections in a day as its air force got ready for the first time in the pandemic to fly severely ill patients to other parts of the country to unburden struggling hospitals.
Berlin will also declare South Africa a virus variant area after the detection of the new variant there, a health ministry source said.
The coronavirus has swept the world in the two years since it was first identified in central China, infecting almost 260 million people and killing 5.4 million.
Japan also tightened border controls for visitors from South Africa and five other African countries, the Jiji news service reported. Its foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
After easing some of its travel restrictions earlier this month, India’s central government issued an advisory to all states to rigorously test and screen international travellers from South Africa and other "at risk" countries.
Asian countries have fared better than other regions in containing the pandemic by enforcing strict preventive measures, rigorous testing and strict border controls.
Taiwan said travellers from "high-risk" southern African countries will have to go into government-run quarantine facilities for 14 days.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the country was well prepared for the new variant. Earlier this week, New Zealand said it would reopen its borders to fully vaccinated international travellers from April 30.
Asked whether those plans would have to be delayed due to the new variant, Ardern said the country had "a number of inbuilt measures to act as a layer of protection"."All of our planning around COVID, we have built into it the possibility of variants in the future," Ardern said in an interview for the upcoming Reuters Next conference.