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EU to halt air travel from southern African countries

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

Brussels, Belgium | Xinhua | The European Union (EU) wants to activate the so-called “emergency brake” to stop air travel from the southern African region to delay the spread in Europe of a new COVID-19 variant, the European Commission said on Friday.

“The European Commission will propose, in close coordination with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Twitter.

The EU’s “emergency break” is a tool that allows the bloc to temporarily suspend travel if “the epidemiological situation of a third country or region worsens quickly, in particular if a (virus) variant of concern or of interest has been detected.”

The detection of this new COVID-19 variant has triggered a series of high-level meetings to discuss and decide the next steps.

A meeting in the framework of the Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) mechanism was underway on Friday to discuss von der Leyen’s proposal, said the Commission’s Deputy Chief Spokesperson Dana Spinant.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG VE) was also meeting on Friday afternoon to assess the new virus variant, and so was the European Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority’s (HERA) expert group on variants.

The European Commission is also “in close contact with Eurocontrol (the European Organization for the Safety of Air Navigation) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA),” Spinant said. The EASA is preparing a recommendation to airports and airlines on the measures to be taken.

“This variant has a large number of mutations,” said Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead on Thursday.

“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has on any potential vaccines,” she said. “It’s a variant that’s under monitoring. The TAG VE will discuss if it should be designated as a variant of interest or variant of concern, and if that’s the case then we will give it a name from the Greek alphabet.”

On Friday, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the European agency in charge of monitoring the evolution of the pandemic in Europe, classed B.1.1.529 as a “variant of interest,” Spinant said.



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