EU to Suspend Travel From Southern Africa Over New COVID Variant 

European Union states have agreed to suspend travel from southern Africa after the detection of a new COVID-19 variant, the presidency of the EU said Friday.

A committee of health experts from all 27 EU states “agreed on the need to activate the emergency break & impose temporary restriction on all travel into EU from southern Africa,” the Slovenian presidency of the EU said on Twitter. 

 

Restrictions will apply to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, European Commission spokesperson Eric Mamer said on Twitter.

An EU official said that EU governments have also been asked to discourage travel to those countries.

Each of the 27 EU countries is free to apply the new measures when it prefers. Some are already applying restrictions.

EU officials said that no decision had yet been made on other countries in other parts of the world where cases were detected, which include Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium, an EU country.

Global alarm

The new coronavirus variant, first detected in South Africa, has caused global alarm as researchers seek to find out if it is vaccine-resistant.

Marc Van Ranst, the virologist who detected the new variant in Belgium, told Reuters it was more likely the infected woman had contracted the variant in Belgium rather than while traveling outside Europe.

She had been in Egypt earlier in November but developed symptoms only 11 days after her return to Belgium. She is not vaccinated.

Switzerland imposed on Friday a requirement of 10-day quarantine and a negative test for travelers from Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, in addition to travel bans on southern African countries.

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WHO Names New COVID Variant Omicron, Cautions Against Travel Measures

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday classified the B.1.1.529 variant detected in South Africa as a SARS-CoV-2 “variant of concern,” saying it may spread more quickly than other forms.

Preliminary evidence suggested there is an increased risk of reinfection and there had been a “detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology,” it said in a statement after a closed meeting of independent experts who reviewed the data.

Infections in South Africa had risen steeply in recent weeks, coinciding with detection of the variant now designated as omicron, WHO said.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other (variants of concern),” it said.

Omicron is the fifth variant to carry such a designation. “This variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” the WHO said.

Current PCR tests continue to successfully detect the variant, it said.

Earlier, the WHO cautioned countries against hastily imposing travel restrictions linked to the variant of COVID-19, saying they should take a “risk-based and scientific approach.”

Global authorities reacted with alarm to the new variant detected in South Africa, with the EU and Britain among those tightening border controls as scientists sought to find out if the mutation was vaccine-resistant.

“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a U.N. briefing in Geneva. “The WHO recommends that countries continue to apply a risk-based and scientific approach when implementing travel measures.”

It would take several weeks to determine the variant’s transmissibility and the effectiveness of vaccines and therapeutics against it, he said, noting that 100 sequences of the variant have been reported so far.

People should continue to wear masks whenever possible, avoid large gatherings, ventilate rooms and maintain hand hygiene, Lindmeier added.

Mike Ryan, WHO’s emergency director, praised South African public health institutions for picking up the signal of the new variant.

But he warned that while some countries had systems in place to do this, the situation elsewhere was often unclear.

“So, it’s really important that there are no knee-jerk responses here. Especially with relation to South Africa,” he said. “Because we’ve seen in the past, the minute that there is any mention of any kind of variation, then everyone is closing borders and restricting travel.”

 

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Britian’s COVID Genomics Head: Likely New Variant Will End Up in Country

It is likely that the new coronavirus variant B.1.1.529 that is spreading in South Africa will end up in Britain, the head of the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium said Friday, but efforts to buy time and reduce transmission would help.

“I think buying time is important and it’s worthwhile, because we can find out what we need to know about that particular variant,” Sharon Peacock told reporters, saying that the health service might need to make preparations.

“This is part of important planning and preparation for something that I would guess is likely to be transmitted into the UK at some point, but it buys that time.”

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Spain to Restrict Flights From South Africa, Botswana Over New COVID-19 Variant

Spain’s cabinet will restrict flights from South Africa and Botswana over concerns about a highly contagious new COVID-19 variant there, Health Minister Carolina Darias said Friday, following similar decisions by other European nations.

“We will see about other countries but for now those two,” she told state broadcaster TVE.

Darias did not give details on when the restrictions would come into force, but a cabinet meeting, at which such measures would be approved, is scheduled for Tuesday.

“We will also imminently adopt a resolution … to require passengers from high-risk countries to provide, in addition to vaccination [proof], either an antigen test or a PCR,” she added.

The announcement came shortly after the European Commision recommended an EU-wide travel ban to and from southern Africa due to the rapid rise of the B.1.1.529 variant in South Africa, which scientists fear could evade vaccines.

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Cases Soar but Swiss Reject Lockdown as COVID Law Vote Looms

Like many others in Europe, Switzerland is facing a steep rise in coronavirus cases. But its federal government, unlike others, hasn’t responded with new restrictive measures. Analysts say it doesn’t want to stir up more opposition to its anti-COVID-19 policies, which face a crucial test at the ballot box this weekend as critics have grown increasingly loud.

On Sunday, as part of the country’s regular referendums, Swiss voters will cast ballots about the so-called “COVID-19 law” that has unlocked billions of Swiss francs (dollars) in aid for workers and businesses hit by the pandemic. The law has also imposed the use of a special COVID certificate that lets only people who have been vaccinated, recovered, or tested negative attend public events and gatherings.

If the Swiss give a thumbs-up, the government may well ratchet up its anti-COVID efforts.

The vote offers a relatively rare bellwether of public opinion specifically on the issue of government policy to fight the coronavirus in Europe, the global epicenter of the pandemic. The continent enjoys relatively high rates of vaccination compared with countries in Africa, Asia and the Middle East, but has been nearly alone in facing a surge in cases in recent weeks.

Polls suggest a solid majority of Swiss will approve the measure, which is already in effect and the rejection of which would end the restrictions — as well as the payouts. But in recent weeks, opponents have raised heaps of cash for their campaign and drawn support from abroad, including a visit from American anti-vaccination campaigner Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to a rally in the capital, Bern, this month.

Swiss weekly NZZ am Sonntag reported that campaigners have sent hundreds of petitions to government offices around the country alleging that the language in the referendum question is vague and makes no mention of the “COVID certificate” that affords access to places like restaurants and sporting events.

On Tuesday, Swiss health authorities warned of a rising “fifth wave” in the rich Alpine country, where vaccination rates are roughly in line with those in hard-hit Austria and Germany — at about two-thirds of the population. Infection rates have soared in recent weeks. The seven-day average case count in Switzerland shot up to more than 5,200 per day from mid-October to mid-November, a more than five-fold increase — with an upward curve like those in neighboring Germany and Austria.

Austria has responded with a much-ballyhooed lockdown, and Germany — which is forming a new government as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s tenure nears its end — has taken some steps like requiring workers to provide their employers with proof of vaccination, recovery or a negative test set to take effect next week.

The Swiss Federal Council, the seven-member executive branch, went out of its way on Wednesday to say: “It’s not the time to decree a tightening of measures nationwide,” while opting for a region-by-region approach and calling on citizens to act responsibly through mask-wearing, physical distancing, and proper airing of indoor areas.

That’s even though the council admitted in a statement that cases — particularly among the young — are rising and “the number of daily infections has reached a record for the year and the exponential rise is continuing.” Hospitalizations — notably among the elderly — are rising too, it said, but not as fast.

Swiss Health Minister Alain Berset has insisted his government hasn’t tightened restrictions because COVID-19 patients still make up only a small percentage of people in intensive-care units.

“But we also know that the number of hospitalizations lags behind the number of infections,” said Pascal Sciarini, a political scientist at the University of Geneva. “One can imagine that if Switzerland didn’t have this particular event — the vote on Sunday — we’d already be preparing (the) next steps.”

The Swiss council may simply be holding its breath through the weekend, he suggested.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if as early as next week, the tone changes,” Scarini said. “It’s starting to budge … the Federal Council is surely going to wait until after the referendum.” 

 

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Russian Brinkmanship Poses Early Test for Germany’s New Leader

Germany will have a new government next month after three parties agreed this week to form a coalition, ousting the ruling Christian Democrats, the party of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel. The new government faces an early test of foreign policy, as Russia has deployed tens of thousands of troops on Europe’s eastern borders.

Members of the Social Democratic Pary, or SDP, which narrowly won the highest vote share in September’s election, agreed to lead a coalition alongside the Green party and the Free Democrats. SDP leader Olaf Scholz, who will be Germany’s next chancellor, pledged to strengthen Germany’s existing alliances in a speech Wednesday.

“Our friendship with France, our partnership with the United States, and a commitment to peace and prosperity in the world are the pillars on which our foreign policy is based,” Scholz said in Berlin.

That peace appears increasingly fragile on Europe’s eastern borders. Russia has deployed around 90,000 troops alongside military hardware close to its border with Ukraine and continues to support separatist rebels in Ukraine’s Donbass region.

On Thursday, Merkel warned of tougher sanctions.

“Any further aggression against the sovereignty of Ukraine would carry a high price. That’s totally clear,” she told reporters.

Support for Belarus

Russia is also supporting Belarus, which Europe accuses of manufacturing a migrant crisis on its border with Poland. So how will Germany’s new government deal with these immediate security challenges?

Scholz has yet to detail his policy toward Russia. The 177-page coalition agreement restates strong German support for NATO as the basis of European security, noted Liana Fix, the program director for international affairs at the Körber-Stiftung analyst group in Berlin.

“Broadly, there’s continuity, but what is interesting is that there’s also quite a strong rhetoric when it comes to supporting civil society in Russia, and also quite a strong rhetoric when it comes to countering the autocratic challenge that is coming from Russia. And here you definitely see the footprint of the Green party which has entered the coalition,” Fix told VOA.

Green party leader Annalena Baerbock will be Germany’s next foreign minister. A first major decision will be to approve the opening of the completed Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany, which critics fear could be used by the Kremlin to blackmail Europe. The U.S. recently tightened sanctions on Russian companies involved in its construction.

“The Greens, that were at the beginning actually opposed to Nord Stream 2, did not want to use their political capital to enforce a stop of Nord Stream 2 in the coalition treaty,” Fix said.

What of the personal relationships? Merkel was raised in East Germany under communism and speaks fluent Russian. “This gave her special access to the Russian president,” Fix told VOA. “Olaf Scholz doesn’t have this background, but he’s very much aware of the situation, where he always argued that ‘might does not make right’ and that this is one of the bases for his understanding of foreign policy and also of policy towards Russia.”

‘The world will change’

In his speech Wednesday after striking the coalition agreement, Scholz said Germany must be ready for a new world order.

“The world will change,” he said. “It will become multipolar, which means there will be many strong countries and powers across the globe which will have influence on what happens in the future.”

For now, much of the new government’s focus will be on the soaring coronavirus infection rate at home. In Germany this week, COVID-19-related deaths surpassed 100,000 since the start of the pandemic, a grim milestone as the coalition prepares to take the reins of power in December.

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Russian Brinkmanship Poses Early Test for Germany’s New Leader

Germany will have a new government next month after three parties agreed to form a coalition, ousting the ruling Christian Democrats of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel. The new government under Olaf Scholz faces an early test of foreign policy, as Russia has deployed tens of thousands of troops on Europe’s eastern borders. Henry Ridgwell considers Berlin’s future relationship with Moscow.
Camera: Henry Ridgwell

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France Calls for European Aid After 27 Migrants Die at Sea 

France and Britain appealed Thursday for European assistance, promised stepped-up efforts to combat people-smuggling networks, and traded blame and barbs in the wake of this week’s tragedy in the English Channel that again shone a light on the scale and complexity of Europe’s migration problems.

At least 27 migrants drowned Wednesday after their inflatable dinghy capsized as they tried to cross the channel. It was the deadliest migration accident to date on the dangerous stretch of sea, a busy shipping lane crisscrossed by hulking freighters and frequently beset by treacherous weather, waves and currents.

French President Emmanuel Macron appealed to neighboring European countries to do more to stop illegal migration into France, saying that when migrants reach French shores with hopes of heading on to Britain, “it is already too late.”

Macron said France was deploying army drones as part of new efforts to patrol its northern coastline and help rescue migrants at sea. But he also said that a greater collective effort was needed, referring to France as a “transit country” for Britain-bound migrants.

“We need to strengthen cooperation with Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, but also the British and the [European] Commission,” he said on a visit to Croatia. “We need stronger European cooperation.”

Ministers from France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Britain and EU officials will meet Sunday to discuss increasing efforts to crack down on migrant-smuggling networks, Macron’s government announced.

They will convene in Calais, one of the French coastal towns where migrants gather, looking for ways to cross to the British coast, which is visible from France on clear days.

Macron described the dead in Wednesday’s sinking as “victims of the worst system, that of smugglers and human traffickers.”

Ever-increasing numbers of people fleeing conflict or poverty in Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Eritrea or elsewhere are risking the perilous journey from France, hoping to win asylum or find better opportunities in Britain. The crossings have tripled this year, compared with 2020.

The French prosecutors office tasked with investigating the sinking said the dead included 17 men, seven women, and two boys and one girl thought to be teenagers. Magistrates were investigating potential charges of homicide, unintentional wounding, assisting illegal migration and criminal conspiracy, the prosecutors office said.

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said two survivors were treated for hypothermia; one is Iraqi and the other is Somali. He said authorities were working to determine the victims’ nationalities.

Macron’s government vowed to bring those responsible for the tragedy to justice, piling pressure on investigators. Darmanin announced the arrests of five alleged smugglers who he said were suspected of being linked to the sinking. The prosecutors office investigating the deaths confirmed five arrests since Wednesday but said they didn’t appear to be linked to its probe.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Macron spoke after the tragedy and agreed “to keep all options on the table to stop these lethal crossings and break the business model of the criminal gangs behind them,” Johnson’s office said.

Macron advocated an immediate funding boost for the European Union’s border agency, Frontex, according to his office.

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1,600 Migrants Lost at Sea in Mediterranean This Year

The sinking of a boat with more than 30 people on board this week was the deadliest migration tragedy to date in the English Channel. 

Migrant shipwrecks of that scale, however, are not uncommon in the waters surrounding Europe’s southern borders. 

This year alone, U.N. officials estimate that 1,600 people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea, the main gateway to Europe for migrants trying to enter the continent with the help of human smugglers. 

The death toll is higher than last year, but by no means unique. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 23,000 people have perished since 2014 while trying to cross the Mediterranean in rickety boats or rubber dinghies, peaking at more than 5,000 in 2016. In the same seven-year period, about 166 people have died in the English Channel. 

Just last week, 85 people died in two separate incidents while trying to reach Italy from Libya, said Flavio di Giacomo, the IOM’s spokesman in Italy. Those tragedies were barely noticed in Europe. 

“I think it’s a question of proximity,” di Giacomo said. “I think the media attention of what happened between U.K. and France is also because this is new. Europe is not used to have that inside the continent; usually it’s on the external borders.” 

Deadliest route

This year the busiest and deadliest migrant route to Europe is the central Mediterranean where people travel in crowded boats from Libya and Tunisia — and in some cases all the way from Turkey — toward Italy. About 60,000 people have arrived in Italy by sea this year, and 1,200 have died or disappeared on the journey, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. 

The number of missing is an estimate partly based on information from survivors of shipwrecks. 

Migrant rescue activists on Thursday said a boat in the central Mediterranean with 430 people on board was taking on water and called on European authorities to assist. Another boat operated by charity Sea-Watch was looking for a safe port to disembark 463 rescued migrants. 

Canaries route

Meanwhile, since last year, traffic has increased on an even more dangerous route in the Atlantic Ocean where migrants set out from Senegal, Mauritania or Morocco in simple wooden boats with the hope of reaching Spain’s Canary Islands. Some boats sink not far from the coast of Africa and others disappear farther out, in some cases missing the Canaries and drifting deep into the Atlantic. 

“The route from western Africa is very long and very dangerous,” di Giacomo said. 

IOM has registered 900 deaths on the Canaries route this year, he said, but the true number could be double “and no one is paying a lot of attention.” 

More than 400 people were rescued this week while trying to reach the island group. 

Human rights groups often criticize European governments for not doing more to rescue migrants trying to reach the continent on unseaworthy vessels. European rescue efforts led by Italy in the central Mediterranean were scaled back a few years ago and more emphasis was placed on training and equipping the Libyan coast guard to intercept migrant boats before they can reach European waters. Critics say Europe is turning a blind eye to human rights abuses in Libyan detention centers for migrants. 

Noting that nine out of 10 refugees have fled to neighboring countries, Carlotta Sami of UNCHR in Italy said the agency is pushing for EU governments to provide “safe passageways” for refugees “to diminish the number of those who attempt to make the extremely risky journey.” 

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