The EU is expected to announce an immediate travel ban to southern Africa because of the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant.
The B.1.1.529 variant, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant and could evade vaccines, has been discovered in South Africa’s most populous province Gauteng.
The EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen tweeted: “The @EU_Commission will propose, 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.”
The future of this year’s United Rugby Championship (URC) could be in jeopardy as it has four South African teams in it.
Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Michael McBride, said the emergence of the new variant was “undoubtedly a matter of concern”.
Recent arrivals to Northern Ireland from the six countries on the UK list will be contacted by the Public Health Agency (PHA) and asked to self-isolate and take a PCR test, which will be prioritised for genomic sequencing.
Further assessments will be made concerning other countries with strong travel links to South Africa, the North’s Department of Health said.
Dr McBride said the introduction of travel restrictions was on a “precautionary basis, while we await further evidence on the spread of this variant in South Africa and understand more about it.”
The official Munster rugby Twitter account stated: “We all are safe & well in Pretoria. We are working with URC on the ongoing situation relating to Covid-19 & will provide an update once we know more #MunsterInSA.”
The Covid adviser for the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP), Mary Favier has warned that if the new South African variant of the virus manages to “out run” Delta, then “we will have a problem”.
It was still unknown if vaccines would work against the new variant which was why so much attention was being paid to it, she told Newstalk Breakfast.
Dr Favier also welcomed plans to extend the vaccine programme to children aged 5-11. GPs knew the difference that vaccines could make, however, she pointed out that it would be a parental decision and GPs would be willing to discuss the issue with parents.
On RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland programme immunology expert, Professor Christine Loscher said she expected the World Health Organisation (WHO) to move the status of the new variant from one of interest to one of concern in the near future.
The new variant was of concern because of the number of mutations in the spike proteins and it was still unclear how this variant would respond to vaccines. It was a case of wait and see the impact, she said.
Within the coming weeks it would be known how good current vaccines were at neutralising antibodies in the variant, added Prof Loscher. But she pointed out that vaccine manufacturers have been able to “tweak” vaccines as the virus changed.
“That’s a positive thing to know, that they have the technology to vary the vaccine as variants arrive.”
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said he is “deeply concerned” about the new Covid variant.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) will meet on Friday to to further assess the significance of this variant.
The Department of Foreign Affairs has not updated its travel advice to South Africa on its website. It no longer advises against non-essential travel.