Scientists have so far only detected the B.1.1.529 variant in relatively small numbers in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, but they are concerned by its high number of mutations which could help it evade the body’s immune response and make it more transmissible.
Britain said the variant was the most significant one found yet after temporarily banning flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia from midday on Friday.
The rand slumped more than 1% against the dollar early on Friday, as the variant made investors cautious. Hospitality stocks like Tsogo Sun Hotels and City Lodge Hotels plummeted on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, falling 9% and 20% respectively, as South Africa is a major destination for British travellers.
“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.
Southern African tourism association SATSA said the British travel restrictions punished countries like South Africa with advanced genome sequencing capabilities.
South Africa will speak to British authorities to try to get them to reconsider their decision, the foreign ministry added.
Singapore said it would also restrict arrivals from South Africa and nearby countries to try to keep the variant out, while India issued an advisory to all states to rigorously test and screen international travellers from South Africa and other “at risk” countries.
South Africa has requested an urgent sitting of a WHO working group on virus evolution on Friday to discuss the new variant.
The country – the worst affected in Africa in terms of total reported cases and deaths – had been experiencing a lull in COVID-19 cases after a severe third wave of infections, until last week when new infections started to pick up.
On Thursday, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) reported 2,465 new cases, almost double the previous day’s number. Although the NICD did not link the resurgence to the B.1.1.529 variant, leading local scientists suspect it is the cause.
The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said it strongly discouraged travel bans on countries that had reported the variant.
“We have observed that imposing bans on travellers from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded a meaningful outcome. Rather implementing public health and social measures should be prioritised,” it said in a statement.