EU, UK, Israel bar flights from southern Africa due to new COVID strain, as WHO meets, markets drop

The new variant, known as B.1.1.529, has a lot of mutations, but scientists are still trying to determine more about the virus.
Illustration of a coronavirus
Illustration of a coronavirus

As several nations acted Friday to bar air travel from southern Africa to limit the spread of a new, transmissible strain of the COVID-19 virus, the World Health Organization convened an emergency meeting, and U.S. stock prices tumbled on new fears of widespread economic disruption.

On Thursday, the World Health Organization called experts to a special meeting amid concerns about the South African variant, ultimately warning officials to avoid "knee-jerk responses." 

"We're calling a special meeting to discuss this, not to cause alarm, but just because we have this system in place," WHO COVID-19 expert Maria Van Kerkhove said Thursday. "We can bring these scientists together and discuss 'What does it mean?' and also kind of set the timeline for how long it will take for us to get those answers."

The European Union, Israel, and the United Kingdom have already opted to impose a travel ban. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told Reuters that his country is "currently on the verge of a state of emergency." 

The U.K. announced flights would be banned from South Africa as well as five other southern African nations effective at noon on Friday. Germany, whose case numbers have skyrocketed in recent days, could impose a flight ban as soon as Friday evening.

"The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems," said German Health Minister Jens Spahn. 

The new variant, known as B.1.1.529, has a lot of mutations. Scientists are still trying to determine more about the virus. In the U.S., Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN that a travel ban may be necessary, but scientists first need to determine if the variant is able to evade antibodies that are created by vaccines and viral infections.