England adds six African countries to travel red list over new COVID strain

England has introduced strict new travel conditions for six African countries, including South Africa, due to growing concern over a newly discovered coronavirus variant, the British health secretary said Thursday.

From noon Friday, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini will be added to England’s travel red list, Sajid Javid announced, meaning British and Irish nationals arriving from these countries must quarantine, and citizens from other countries will be denied entry. Direct flights will be temporarily banned until quarantine facilities are set up.

“More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now,” Javid said, adding that the U.K. Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is investigating the new variant.

So far, 59 cases of the variant, known as B.1.1.529, have been discovered in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana. Most of the cases are in South Africa, where the density of mutations on the new variant has raised fears it may be more contagious than previous strains.

The variant is the most heavily mutated that has been discovered, which could change the way it reacts to vaccines and treatments.

“This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility,” UKHSA Chief Executive Jenny Harries said.

A World Health Organization technical team is meeting South African officials Friday to assess the situation.

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