New variant prompts Asia COVID-19 concerns

·2-min read

Asian countries have rushed to tighten restrictions after a new and possibly vaccine-resistant COVID-19 variant was detected in South Africa, with Singapore and India announcing stricter border controls and more rigorous testing.

Scientists are still finding out more about the new variant, first identified at the start of this week, but the news pummelled financial markets on Friday, with stocks in Asia suffering their sharpest drop in three months and oil plunging more than three per cent.

The variant, called B.1.1.529, has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong, according to the UK Health Security Agency.

Alarmed by the variant, Britain temporarily banned flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini from Friday, and asked returning British travellers from those destinations to quarantine.

Singapore swiftly joined Britain, with the health ministry saying on Friday it would restrict arrivals from South Africa and countries nearby as a precaution.

Japan's government also decided to tighten border controls for visitors from South Africa and five other African countries, the Jiji news service reported. Its foreign ministry did not immediately respond to Reuters' request for comment.

After easing some of its travel restrictions earlier this month, India's central government issued an advisory to all states to rigorously test and screen international travellers from South Africa and other "at risk" countries.

Asian countries have fared better than those in other regions in containing the pandemic by enforcing strict preventive measures, rigorous testing and strict border controls.

The new variant has a spike protein that is dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that vaccines are based on, the UK Health Security Agency added.

Taiwan said travellers from "high-risk" southern African countries will have to go into government-run quarantine facilities for 14 days.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told Reuters that New Zealand was well prepared for the new variant. Earlier this week, NZ said it would reopen its borders to fully vaccinated international travellers from April 30.

Asked whether those plans would have to be delayed due to the new variant, Ardern said the country had "a number of inbuilt measures to act as a layer of protection".

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