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Corona variant B.1.1.529 in South Africa: How effective are travel restrictions?


In South Africa, the number of infections with a new virus variant is increasing. Several states are stopping regular air traffic and imposing strict entry controls. Is that enough to keep B.1.1.529 in check?

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Because of a new Corona variant, several countries are restricting air traffic from South Africa


Experts are watching the spread of the coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 with concern.

Currently, as of Friday afternoon, there are at least 85 confirmed cases worldwide - and almost 1,000 suspected cases.

With 77 confirmed infections, the majority of these cases were registered in South Africa.

Four people were infected with the virus variant in Botswana, two cases have been registered in Hong Kong and one in Israel.

In the afternoon, Belgium's health minister announced that the new variant had been infected - the first known case in Europe.

more on the subject

New corona variant from South Africa: What we know about B.1.1.529 - and what not

It is not yet clear how dangerous the variant is.

The special thing about the variant is its very high number of mutations.

With 32 changes in the spike protein - and thus significantly more than in the delta variant - the virus could bypass the immune protection that exists after a vaccination or a supernatant infection.

With the protein in the spike, the virus docks onto the human host cells.

And most vaccines target this part of the virus.

It is also possible that B.1.1.529 is contagious even faster than the previously known variants.

The SPD health expert Karl Lauterbach wrote on Twitter: “We have to buy time.

Nothing is worse than a new variant in a running wave. "If the preliminary data turn out to be correct," travel restrictions must be imposed immediately. "

They have already been introduced: The federal government, for example, has set up strict rules for air traffic with South Africa. The Federal Ministry of Health announced that the country will be considered a virus variant area from Saturday night. "As a result, airlines are only allowed to carry German citizens to Germany." In addition, all those who have entered would have to be in quarantine for 14 days - even if they are fully vaccinated.

There is a flight connection to South Africa from several German airports.

On Friday morning, for example, two Lufthansa flights from South Africa arrived at the airport in Frankfurt am Main, one from Johannesburg and one from Cape Town.

A total of around 550 passengers entered the country.

Also on the weekend, three planes from South Africa are to land in Frankfurt.

The federal police should already plan separate controls.

Evidence of a negative PCR test result is checked by the airline before departure.

According to an estimate by the German Travel Association, up to 400 guests are currently traveling with German tour operators in southern Africa.

No flights to the UK, France or Malta

Great Britain stopped travel to six African countries.

From South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini - which used to be called Swaziland -, Zimbabwe and Botswana, there will be no more flights to Great Britain from Friday noon.

Travelers who have arrived in Great Britain from one of these countries by this time would have to go into quarantine and do a PCR test on the second and eighth day.

According to the UK news agency PA, between 500 and 700 people from South Africa arrive in the UK every day.

France imposed a landing ban for flights from southern Africa.

According to Prime Minister Jean Castex, the ban will apply immediately for at least 48 hours.

Traveling seven countries are not allowed to enter France regardless of their vaccination status.

The government in Israel also put South Africa and six other African countries on a "red list".

Citizens of these countries are not allowed to enter Israel, Israelis who return must isolate themselves for a certain period of time.

In Malta, too, travel to and from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botwana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe is prohibited from Saturday night to Sunday.

Is that enough?

"Sooner or later" the variant could expand

These restrictions will not prevent the spread of B.1.1.529.

Gérard Krause also told SPIEGEL: "If the new variant should have survival advantages over the delta variant, in the current situation with travel restrictions we will not be able to prevent it from spreading here sooner or later." Krause is a doctor and head of the department Epidemiology at the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Braunschweig.

Why not?

It is not yet clear when and where the variant first appeared.

According to the virologist Tulio de Oliveira, the fact that the largest number of infections with this variant so far has been registered in South Africa is no proof that the virus variant must have appeared for the first time in this country.

more on the subject

Corona in Africa: The Silent InfestationBy Julia Merlot

It is clear, however, that there will be more cases in South Africa than previously known.

Summer is currently starting there - and thus actually the time when there are fewer infections with a seasonal Sars-CoV-2 virus.

But in Gauteng, the most populous province in which Johannesburg is also located, the numbers have recently increased massively.

At the beginning of the month, the region recorded around a hundred new infections, on Wednesday the mark rose to 1200. Scientists estimate that up to 90 percent of the new cases in Gauteng could be traced back to B.1.1.529.

The variant may also have spread to the other eight provinces in the country.

The fact that only a small fraction of the virus samples are sequenced does not add to the certainty.

It is also clear how many people have traveled from South Africa to other countries in the past few weeks.

The scientist Moritz Krämer, who conducts research on the spatial dynamics of infectious diseases at Oxford University, shared a graphic on Twitter:

It shows the number of passengers who flew from Johannesburg airport in September - to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Kenya and the Arab Emirates, but also to Europe.

Flights from South Africa arrived in the Netherlands, France, Ireland, Switzerland, Portugal and Germany.

In October and November the numbers should not differ much.

"Probably many more countries will soon report cases if you look at the data of passenger flights from JNB," wrote Krämer.

Nevertheless, the travel restrictions are useful. The epidemiologist Krause described it as "an effective means of slowing down the global spread of a new variant." Because: "This saves time to collect and analyze data for the risk assessment of a new variant." The more researchers know about the new variant, the greater the chance of containing it. And: And the slower the speed with which B.1.1.529 penetrates other countries, the greater the chances that infection chains can be traced and, at best, broken.

However, the World Health Organization (WHO) is currently evaluating it differently: A spokesman said on Friday in Geneva that even without such restrictions, states could take a number of measures to curb the spread of new variants.

This included the precise observation of the infection process and the genetic analysis of any corona cases.

At this point in time there are "reservations about travel restrictions," he said.

A WHO recommendation for corona measures provides that they do not unnecessarily obstruct international traffic.

Travelers should not automatically be classified as suspicious cases.

The burden in health care must also be considered

However, Krause mentions another point that justifies the introduction of travel restrictions - even if they cannot prevent the virus from spreading.

"Delaying the spread is valuable in itself because it extends the added burden of health care over a longer period of time," he said.

Because even the delta variant poses considerable challenges for medical care in some countries.

With material from dpa, AFP and Reuters

Source: spiegel

All tech articles on 2021-11-26

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