The spread of a new, potentially very dangerous variant of the coronavirus in southern Africa has sparked international concern.

Experts fear that variant B.1.1.529 is not only highly contagious due to an unusually large number of mutations, but could also penetrate the protective shield of the vaccines more easily.

Great Britain and Israel therefore restricted air traffic to the states in the region as a precaution.

The South African Institute for Infectious Diseases NICD announced on Thursday that the first 22 cases of the new variant B.1.1.529 had been detected in South Africa. More cases are to be expected in the course of the ongoing genome analyzes. "Although the data situation is still limited, our experts are working overtime with all monitoring systems in order to understand the new variant and the possible implications associated with it."

Health Secretary Joe Phaahla said the new variant confirms the "fact that this invisible enemy is very unpredictable".

He called on the South Africans to wear masks, to keep their distance and, in particular, to get vaccinated.

"We also have the extra vehicle of vaccination, which will help us avoid serious illnesses including ending up in clinic or even falling victim to the virus," he said.

Southern African countries classified as “red”

Israel then classified the countries South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini as "red countries". Foreigners are no longer allowed to enter Israel from these countries, said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office. When Israelis return home from these countries, they have to be in quarantine in a Corona hotel for up to 14 days, but can test themselves with two negative PCR tests after a week. The new variant will be monitored closely to prevent it from spreading in Israel, it said.

The British government is restricting air traffic from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Eswatini and Namibia because of the new virus variant. Health Minister Sajid Javid said that there was a strict hotel quarantine requirement for those arriving. There are indications that B.1.1.529 is even more contagious than the Delta variant and that the available vaccines are less effective. Air traffic from the six countries should cease from Friday noon.

So far, no cases with the new variant, which is said to have around 30 mutations, have been found in the UK.

But according to the PA news agency, 500 to 700 people from South Africa alone arrive in the country every day.

A higher number is expected over the Christmas season.

PA quoted an expert from the UK Healthcare Safety Authority with the assessment that B.1.1.529 was "the worst variant" seen so far.

So far there are only confirmed cases in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.