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New Covid variant: Arab countries ban travel from southern African nations

Countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain will ban travellers from several African nations after reports of the Omicron variant
Saudi passengers arrive at King Khaled International airport
Saudi passengers arrive at King Khaled International airport in the capital Riyadh on 17 May 2021 (AFP/file photo)

Oman and Qatar on Saturday announced bans on travellers from several African nations after reports of a new Covid-19 variant first detected in southern Africa, following similar measures imposed on Friday by Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Kuwait and Jordan.

On Thursday, South African scientists said they had detected a new B.1.1.529 variant, and said it had at least 10 mutations, compared with two for Delta and three for Beta variants. 

The World Health Organisation declared the recently discovered strain to be a "variant of concern", renaming it "Omicron".

The variant has a spike protein that is significantly different to the one in the original coronavirus on which current vaccines are based, the UK Health Security Agency said, raising fears about how current vaccines will fare.

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"As scientists have described, [this is] the most significant variant they've encountered to date," British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News.

Qatar Airways said on Saturday it had banned entry to travellers from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique

Omani authorities will from Sunday suspend entry to people coming from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Eswatini, according to the Oman News Agency.

The Saudi and Emirati lists included all the same countries except Namibia.

In Saudi Arabia, the ban includes flights to and from those countries, according to the Saudi Press Agency. The new guidelines, however, said nationals of the African countries may enter the kingdom if they had spent the previous 14 days in a third country and comply with Saudi health protocols.

The UAE will impose the ban on Monday, according to the official Emirati news agency, WAM. It will include travellers coming from those African countries, regardless of the airline, and will also include transit passengers. 

Bahrain announced similar measures targeting ten African countries, including South Africa, the official BNA news agency said. 

Jordan's interior ministry, acting on recommendations from its health ministry, also announced a ban for non-Jordanian travellers coming from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, and Eswatini.

The North African kingdom of Morocco banned travellers from those same countries due to fears over the new coronavirus variant. Meanwhile, Kuwait issued the same ban, but with the additions of Zambia and Malawi. 

Iran also issued similar bans on Saturday.  

'Unjustified'

Meanwhile, Egypt and Israel, which has detected a case of the new variant, on Friday suspended flights from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Belgium said on Friday it had detected the first announced case of the new variant in Europe in an unvaccinated person returning from Egypt via Turkey. 

The European Union has proposed member states stop all flights to and from southern Africa following the variant's discovery, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen said on Friday.

The UK has also banned flights from South Africa and neighbouring countries, asking returning travellers to quarantine.