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.
The new strain of the virus, which has also been detected in small numbers elsewhere, appears to spread more easily than other types but experts say there is no evidence it is more lethal or resistant to vaccines.
The discovery unleashed panic that led to more than two dozen countries suspending UK flights, threatening travel chaos during the holiday season.
The European Union recommended lifting the restrictions and urged 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,” the EU said.
France said on Tuesday evening it would relax its stance and allow EU nationals and residents of EU countries to travel from Britain from Wednesday, providing they can show a negative Covid-19 test no more than 72 hours old.
The ban on arrivals in France has led to long tailbacks of freight lorries in southern England and has disrupted passenger travel in the run-up to Christmas.
The World Health Organization in Europe said its experts would meet on Wednesday to discuss how to handle the outbreak, saying “limiting travel to contain spread is prudent until we have better info”.
WHO’s Europe director Hans Kluge wrote on Twitter that the organisation would “discuss strategies for testing, reducing transmission & communicating risks”.
The death toll from the virus surpassed 1.7 million on Tuesday, roughly a year after it emerged in China.
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 European Union is preparing its rollout of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Sunday, following similar vaccination campaigns in the UK and the US.
The co-founder of BioNTech said on Tuesday it was “highly likely” that its vaccine would work 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).
In an increasingly isolated Britain, one of the biggest concerns remains France’s ban on freight traffic as part of a 48-hour blockade on the movement of people across the English Channel.
It was unclear whether the relaxation of the restrictions would include freight, with French officials expected to make another announcement later on Tuesday.
The British government said earlier it was considering tests for truckers as part of talks with French authorities to allow the resumption of freight traffic.
While Prime Minister Boris Johnson insisted that supply chains were “strong and robust”, experts warned that Britain may face shortages of certain fresh foods over the Christmas period if crossings to France were not reopened on Wednesday.
Washington has so far held off on suspending flights with the UK but passengers flying from Britain to New York with British Airways or Delta will have to first test negative for coronavirus, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced Monday.
A US official advising the country’s Operation Warp Speed vaccine program also stressed that more information was needed to establish the risk of the UK variant.
“There is no hard evidence that this virus is actually more transmissible, (but) there is clear evidence that there is more of it in the population,” said Moncef Slaoui, a vaccine scientist and former pharmaceutical executive.
The 84-year-old pope, known for his love of getting close to the faithful, has been reluctant to wear a mask despite the pandemic that has hit Italy particularly badly.
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