The United States could reimpose travel restrictions to countries in southern Africa where a highly transmissible new Covid variant is spreading, Anthony Fauci says.
The White House’s chief medical adviser told CNN US public health officials were “rushing” to get data from their counterparts in South Africa to assess whether vaccines are effective against the new strain.
“We want to find out, scientist-to-scientist, exactly what is going on,” said Dr Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
“Right now, you’re talking about sort of like a red flag that this might be an issue, but we don’t know.”
The United Kingdom, Germany, and several other European nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday, and stocks plunged in Asia and Europe in reaction to the variant, named B.1.1.529.
Cases of the new variant have been detected in Japan, Israel and Belgium, and Dr Fauci said it was possible that the strain was already in the United States.
“If, in fact, it does evade the vaccines that we’re doing, there’s always the possibility of doing what the UK has done, namely, block travel from South Africa and related countries,” Dr Fauci told CNN.
“You’re prepared to do everything you need to do to protect the American public, but you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that, and that’s what we’re doing right now.”
The news sparked a sell-off of European airline shares, with Lufthansa down 12.4 per cent, IAG, parent of British Airways and Iberia, off 14.4 per cent and Air France-KLM down 9 per cent.
Oil prices also plunged, with US crude down 6.7 per cent at $73.22 per barrel.
The World Health Organisation head of emergencies Dr Michael Ryan urged countries not to make “knee-jerk” reactions.
“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel. It’s really important that we remain open, and stay focused,” Dr Ryan said.
The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in a statement it “strongly discourages the imposition of travel ban for people originating from countries that have reported this variant,” and that previous travel bans had failed to halt the spread of variants.
Regardless, the UK imposed a travel ban to five southern African countries from midday Friday, and several other countries said they would follow suit.
Associated Press contributed to this report
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