04:22 – Virus: restrictions in Benelux, questions about a variant from South Africa

The Netherlands and Belgium are expected to decide on new measures on Friday to curb the soaring coronavirus contaminations in Europe, when a worrying variant detected in South Africa has pushed the United Kingdom to close to six countries of ‘Africa.

Europe once again became the global epicenter of the pandemic this fall, while the highly contagious Delta variant reduced the effectiveness of vaccines against the transmission of the disease to 40%, according to the WHO.

The Covid-19 has caused the death of more than 1.5 million people there, according to an AFP count made from official reports.

In total, the coronavirus has killed more than 5.16 million people worldwide since the end of 2019. The WHO estimates that the toll of the pandemic could be two to three times higher.

In the aftermath of a tightening announced in France and the crossing of the 100,000 dead threshold reached by Germany, their Dutch and Belgian neighbors are preparing to make decisions that are sometimes difficult to accept among the population, especially in the Netherlands.

At a press conference scheduled for Friday evening, Prime Minister Mark Rutte could announce the closure of bars and restaurants at 5:00 p.m. (1600 GMT), instead of 8:00 p.m. (7:00 p.m. GMT), local media reported.

However, this country has recently experienced several nights of unrest, especially in Rotterdam and The Hague, following the establishment of partial containment, with a series of health restrictions. The government is also planning to ban certain places for the unvaccinated, including bars and restaurants.

Already, citizens are called upon not to accommodate more than four people in their homes and to telework. Public demonstrations are prohibited and football matches played behind closed doors. Despite these measures, the Netherlands, which has a population of 17 million, is still registering more than 22,000 new cases per day.

– Superior to the most pessimistic curves –

In Belgium, the increase in contaminations and hospitalizations linked to Covid is « higher than the most pessimistic curves » sketched last week by scientific experts, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo was alarmed on Thursday.

It will urgently bring together the heads of the executives of the federated entities on Friday morning to decide on new measures.

The daily rate of contamination broke a record in Belgium on Monday since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, with 23,621 new infections recorded by the public health institute Sciensano.

The curve is exponential from the plateau maintained throughout the summer until early October.

Mr. De Croo also assured that the authorities intended to accelerate the vaccination and in particular the administration of the booster dose, which only 1.2 million Belgians have received to date. In addition, 75% of the general population had a first complete vaccination.

– Border closures –

Europe is toughening up its measures, and border closures are resuming.

On Thursday evening, the United Kingdom announced that it would ban entry to travelers from six African countries, after South Africa announced the discovery of a new variant: all flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana will be suspended as of Friday 12:00 GMT.

The B.1.1.529 variant shows an « extremely high » number of mutations and « we can see that it has the potential to spread very quickly, » virologist Tulio de Oliveira told an online press conference overseen by the South African Department of Health.

The metamorphoses of the initial virus can potentially make it more transmissible, to the point of making the variant dominant: this was the case with the Delta variant initially discovered in India, and which according to the World Health Organization (WHO) reduced to 40% the effectiveness of anti-Covid vaccines against disease transmission.

At this point, South African scientists are unsure of the effectiveness of existing vaccines against the new form of the virus.

To date, 22 cases have been reported, mostly affecting young people, according to the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD). Cases have also been reported in neighboring Botswana and Hong Kong, on a person returning from a trip to South Africa.

The WHO has declared « to follow closely » this new variant and must meet Friday to determine its dangerousness.

Already, « the number of cases detected and the percentage of positive tests are increasing rapidly, » NICD said in a statement, particularly in the most populous province of Gauteng, which includes Pretoria and Johannesburg.

According to scientists, the new variant B.1.1.529 has at least 10 mutations, compared to two for the Delta.

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