BRUSSELS: The European Commission on Tuesday urged EU nations to lift travel bans imposed on Britain to halt the spread of a coronavirus variant that has swept the UK and spurred global panic just as vaccines are being rolled out worldwide.
The new strain of the virus, which has also been detected in small numbers elsewhere, appears to spread more easily than other types but there is no evidence it is more lethal or resistant to vaccines, according to experts.
Its discovery has nevertheless heightened fears that led more than two dozen countries around the world to suspend flights from the UK out of precaution.
With the bans unleashing travel chaos during the holiday season, the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, recommended lifting the border restrictions with Britain, urging virus tests be carried out on passengers within 72 hours before travel.
“Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions,” a statement from the EU executive said.
Several EU member states are among those imposing flight, train and ferry bans on UK arrivals since Britain announced the discovery of the new strain of coronavirus.
The ban on arrivals in France has led to long tailbacks of freight trucks in southern England, and has disrupted passenger travel in the run-up to Christmas.The World Health Organisation in Europe said it would also convene its members to discuss how to handle the outbreak and cautioned that “limiting travel to contain spread is prudent until we have better info.”
WHO’s regional director for Europe Hans Kluge said in a post to Twitter that the organisation would “discuss strategies for testing, reducing transmission & communicating risks.” Around the world, the death toll from the virus surpassed 1.7 million on Tuesday, according to a count, with the highest number of daily fatalities reported in the US, Germany and Russia. Germany on Tuesday extended its ban on arrivals from the UK — as well as South Africa, where a similar variant has been found — until January 6.
Health Minister Jens Spahn said that “as long as it is possible”, Germany aims to prevent “potentially dangerous virus mutations from spreading in continental Europe”.
The border closures come as the European Union prepares to start rolling out the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Sunday, following similar vaccination campaigns in the UK and the US.
The co-founder of BioNTech assured Tuesday it was “highly likely” that its vaccine against the coronavirus works against the mutated strain detected in Britain.
And if not, the vaccine could be adapted in six weeks, said Ugur Sahin, adding that tests are already being run on the variant.
In the US, the world’s worst-affected country, 78-year-old President-elect Joe Biden received a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine live on television to boost Americans’ confidence in the shots.
Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease specialist, received his Covid-19 vaccine on Tuesday along with other senior officials and six health workers at a live streamed event at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).