South Africa announced on Friday that it had detected a new Covid 19 strain that scientists fear could damage efforts to beat the epidemic, as governments across Europe rushed to bolster their defences against a new coronaviruses spike.
In recent weeks the continent has been in the throes of surging cases and violent riots, wrestling with booster programmes and dramatic lockdowns to stem the tide as its death toll surpassed 1.5 million and it once again became the global epicentre of an unceasing epidemic.
Scientists are trying to understand the impact of the new, heavily mutated strain, which was feared to be more infectious than Delta, which brought the world back to its knees a year after the virus first surfaced in central China.
This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is under way to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility, Britain's health agency chief Jennie Harries said in a statement.
Ahead of Thursday's announcement by scientists in South Africa, countries across Europe were already accelerating booster campaigns, enforcing stricter curbs and targeting the unvaccinated as cases multiplied to record levels.
Authorities in the Netherlands were preparing for a new riot ahead of an announcement by Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Friday to tighten a partial lock down as it faces a critical hospital bed shortage with infections reaching record levels.
The country has suffered four days of antilockdown unrest, led by people Rutte described as idiots the worst in the port city of Rotterdam, where police opened fire on rioters, injuring five.
Rotterdam police spokesman Gijs van Nimwegen told AFP that they were keeping their eyes and ears open and they are prepared.
Germany, the Czech Republic, and Portugal -- which has one of the world's highest vaccination rates - have announced new measures in recent days to stem the tide of infections that have been worse than feared.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued an urgent warning to the country's incoming government on Thursday, saying every day counts as the country's death toll passes 100,000.
Europe is ramping up its vaccination drive to beat back rising cases ahead of the encroaching winter.
On Thursday, France made booster shots available to all adults and the European Union's medicines agency approved jabs for five to 11 year-olds.
Scientists and health officials in Britain and South Africa expressed alarm that the new variant, expected to be named by the WHO on Friday, could damage much of the hard-won gains against the virus over the summer.
The WHO said it is closely monitoring the reported variant and is expected to determine if it should be designated a variant of interest or concern. Scientists have said the new B. The variant 529 has 10 mutations, compared to two for Delta or three for Beta.
Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on Covid 19 said at a virtual press briefing that the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla described the strain as a major threat. British scientists are deeply concerned with the fact that current vaccines could render current vaccines less effective, according to South African Health Minister Sajid Javid.
Britain said it would ban travel from six southern African countries in the first international move to protect against its spread.
The news of the variant's discovery spooked investors in early afternoon trade, with Tokyo stocks falling three percent.
After three local cases were reported, health officials said Friday that the strict zero-Covid policy in Asia pushed Shanghai to cancel hundreds of flights and close some schools.
At a Thursday briefing, China has accumulated lots of experience in ''dynamic zero-Covid, said Zhang Wenhong, head of the Shanghai Covid prevention expert task force.
There was more positive news elsewhere.
The Philippines said on Friday it would welcome foreign tourists back to its shores next week from countries designated as low-risk.
The effects of the pandemic has pushed even the most hardened skeptics into adopting anti-virus measures.
In an interview Thursday, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said in a rare nod to social distancing that we shouldn't have carnival in February.