“The last thing we are missing now is a new variant that has been introduced, which causes even more problems,” said the acting Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn (CDU) on Friday.
The health policy spokeswoman for the SPD, Sabine Dittmar, warned in view of the high utilization of the intensive care beds: “We urgently need to prevent another virus variant from being entered.”
As a result, the federal government declared South Africa a virus variant area. The regulation comes into force at night. As a result, airlines will only be allowed to carry German citizens to Germany.
Quarantine for 14 days after arrival applies to everyone, including those who have been vaccinated. Whether the rule can stop the spread is completely open. Although the variant has not yet been detected in any European country, it is considered highly contagious.
According to the President of the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Lothar Wieler, the variant carries many mutations in its spike proteins, which play a key role in the penetration of the virus into the body’s cells. “This suggests that there could be increased transmission,” said Wieler. In other words: B.1.1.529 would then be more contagious.
Based on the available data, it is not yet possible to say whether the variant is actually more easily transferable. “We suspect that and there are some early data,” James Naismith, professor of structural biology at Oxford University, told the BBC on Friday. If easier transferability is confirmed, it is inevitable that the variant will also reach Great Britain, the expert continues.
The scientist Susan Hopkins of Imperial College London described the new variant as “the most worrying we have ever seen”. The transmission rate (R value) determined so far in South Africa is two. This is similar to the values at the beginning of the pandemic, Hopkins said on BBC radio. More data is needed to come to a final assessment.
A renewed increase in infections in a heavily contaminated country like South Africa suggests that new variations are at least partially responsible, Hopkins continued. Should a higher transferability prove to be true, the variant would become “a massive problem” in which it could circumvent the immune protection existing in the population.
This is how the variant spreads
Initial PCR test results show that 90 percent of the 1,100 new cases reported Wednesday in the South African province of Johannesburg were caused by the new variant, according to Tulio de Oliveira, professor of bioinformatics who heads gene sequencing facilities at two South African universities .
In neighboring Botswana, authorities recorded four cases on Monday in people who were fully vaccinated. In Hong Kong, the variant was detected in a traveler from South Africa during his hotel quarantine. Another person in the hotel room across the street seems to have been infected.
South Africa’s Minister of Health, Joe Phaahla, said the new variant confirms the “fact that this invisible enemy is very unpredictable”. He called on the South Africans to wear masks, to keep their distance and, in particular, to get vaccinated. “We also have the extra vehicle of vaccination, which will help us avoid serious illnesses including ending up in clinic or even falling victim to the virus,” he said.
Timo Ulrichs, epidemiologist at the chair for global health at the Akkon University in Berlin, told the Handelsblatt that it was now important in any case to make it more difficult to spread from Africa. “Perhaps, however, this variant will not be able to prevail against the fairly fit Delta variant, but will remain a local phenomenon.”
This is how the vaccines work against the South African variant
In view of the inadequate data situation, this question cannot be answered with certainty. However, experts reckon that the vaccines may be less effective. “However, it is to be feared that because of the many mutations the surface structures on the virus could look completely different, so that the immunity previously generated by vaccination is no longer sufficient to protect against this new variant,” said epidemiologist Ulrichs the Handelsblatt. “In that case we would have to adapt the vaccines and start a new vaccination campaign from scratch.”
According to a British expert, the currently available corona vaccines are “almost certainly” less effective against the new variant B.1.1.529 discovered in southern Africa. That is what James Naismith, professor of structural biology at Oxford University, said on the BBC 4 Today radio show on Friday.
From the point of view of the South African virologist Shabir Madhi, conventional vaccines only protect against the new Corona variant B.1.1.529 to a limited extent. He told the TV broadcaster eNCA in Johannesburg on Friday: “We assume that there is still some protection.” However, it is likely that previous vaccines are likely to be less effective.
This is how the federal government reacts
The federal government declared South Africa to be a virus variant area. The regulation comes into force at night. As a result, airlines will only be allowed to carry German citizens to Germany. Quarantine for 14 days after arrival applies to everyone, including those who have been vaccinated.
Because the regulation only takes effect at night, the Managing Minister of Health Spahn asked travelers from South Africa to voluntarily be tested with a PCR test.
Lufthansa is maintaining the flight connections to South Africa for the time being. “We are implementing the requirements and will continue to fly, also to bring people home and transport freight,” said a company spokesman. Lufthansa is closely monitoring the situation and complying with all legal requirements and rules.
This is how the EU reacts
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wants to stop air traffic from southern Africa in consultation with the member states. She announced it on Twitter. However, the EU Commission can only make recommendations on such matters, since border security and entry regulations are a matter for the individual EU countries.
In addition to Germany, Austria and Italy have already tightened the entry requirements for travelers from South Africa and six other South African countries.
Austrians who have stayed in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique are allowed to return to their home country, but have to go into ten-day quarantine. Other travelers from the countries are no longer allowed to enter. According to initial information, Italy completely prohibits the entry of people who have been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini in the past 14 days.
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