The European Union will propose to stop air travel from the southern African region in view of a new coronavirus variant called B.1.1.529, said European Commission chief Ursula Von der Leyen on Friday.

The variant was first detected in South Africa and has raised concerns around the world. The South African scientists who detected the variant had told reporters that the strain has a “very unusual constellation” of mutations, which may help it evade the body’s immune system.

The World Health Organization has said it will determine at a meeting on Friday if the strain should be designated as a “variant of interest” or “variant of concern”.

The United Kingdom has already announced a ban on six south African countries beginning from Friday. The countries are South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana.

The United Kingdom said that the variant has been considered by scientists as the most significant one yet detected because it can reduce the effectiveness of vaccines, according to Reuters.

“There are no detected cases of this variant in the UK at this time. But this new variant is of huge international concern,” the country’s Secretary of State for Health and Social Care Sajid Javid said.

Germany, Italy, Singapore and Israel too have announced a ban on travel from the region, reported NDTV.

India has advised its states and Union Territories to take note of the new variant and asked them to ensure rigorous screening of international travellers.

“This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country, in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel,” Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said in a letter.

According to Bhushan, three cases of the variant have been reported in Botswana, six cases in South Africa and one case in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, South Africa has criticised the United Kingdom for its decision to ban travel from the country.

“Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

Israel detects one case of new coronavirus variant

Meanwhile, Israel has also identified a case of the B.1.1.529 variant, reported AFP.

“The variant discovered in southern African states has been identified in Israel,” the country’s foreign ministry said, adding that it was recorded “in a person who returned from Malawi”.

Two more people returning from a foreign country have tested positive for the coronavirus infection and they have been quarantined, the ministry said.

All three were vaccinated, Israel’s health ministry added, but did not provide details on whether they were fully inoculated or about the name of the vaccine.

Covid restrictions imposed in other countries

France has banned travellers from seven countries in southern Africa, including South Africa, for 48 hours, AFP reported. The other countries whose citizens have been barred from travelling to France are Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini.

The French government has cited the discovery of the new variant of the Covid-19 as the reason for the restriction.

In Germany, Health Minister Jens Spahn said that the flight restrictions will begin from Friday night and will affect South Africa and “probably neighbouring nations”, reported AFP.

Only Germany’s citizens will be allowed to enter but they will have to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival even if they are vaccinated.

“The last thing we need now is to introduce a new variant that causes even more problems,” Spahn said.

Italy announced it was banning entry to those who have been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia or Eswatini in the last 14 days.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza said scientists were studying the new B.1.1.529 variant, “and in the meantime, we will follow the path of maximum caution”.