COVID-19: South Africa says UK travel ban over new variant seems 'rushed'

South Africa said on Friday a British ban on flights from South Africa because of the detection of a new COVID-19 variant "seems to have been rushed" as even the World Health Organization (WHO) was yet to advise on the next steps.

Scientists have so far only detected the B.1.1.529 variant in relatively small numbers in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong, but they are concerned by its high number of mutations which could help it evade the body's immune response and make it more transmissible.

Britain on Thursday temporarily banned flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia from midday on Friday after its detection was announced.

The rand slumped more than 1% against the dollar early on Friday, as the variant made investors cautious.

"Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries," South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement.

South Africa will engage with British authorities to try to get them to reconsider their decision, the statement added.

South Africa has requested an urgent sitting of a WHO working group on virus evolution on Friday to discuss the new variant.

The country had been experiencing a lull in COVID-19 cases after a third wave of infections, until last week when new infections started to pick up.

On Thursday, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) reported 2,465 new cases, almost double the previous day's number. Although the NICD did not link the resurgence to the B.1.1.529 variant, leading local scientists suspect it is the cause.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said it strongly discouraged travel bans on countries that had reported the variant.

"We have observed that imposing bans on travelers from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded a meaningful outcome. Rather implementing public health and social measures should be prioritized," it said in a statement.

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