India set to resume overseas flights, tightens screening for new Covid-19 variant

India is the world's second-worst affected country by Covid-19 after the United States.
India is the world's second-worst affected country by Covid-19 after the United States.PHOTO: AFP

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - India said Friday (Nov 26) it will resume international passenger flights from mid-December with Covid-19 linked curbs for "at risk" countries, and ordered tightened screening at borders as fears over a new coronavirus variant spread globally. 

The federal Health Ministry said reports of mutations in the new variant, identified as B.1.1.529, had "serious public health implications" and asked states to adopt rigorous screening and testing for all passengers from South Africa and other "at risk" countries.

"This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel," Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan said in a letter to states issued late on Thursday (Nov 25).

But India’s civil aviation ministry said it had decided to let airlines resume scheduled international flights from Dec 15, lifting a nearly two-year-old ban imposed to stem the spread of Covid-19. 

Some countries in Europe and Asia have rushed to tighten border controls and restrict travel because of the new variant. 

India’s foreign ministry said there was no immediate information on steps the government was taking. 

"This is a developing incident," foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi told a news conference.

The federal health ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for further comment. 

On Friday, the British Health Security Agency said the new variant has a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that Covid-19 vaccines are based on. And it could make existing vaccines less effective.

Britain has banned flights from six African countries, and asked returning British travellers from those destinations to quarantine.

India, the world's second-worst affected country by Covid-19 after the United States, posted the smallest rise in new cases in one-and-a-half years this week, due to rising vaccinations and antibodies in a large section of its population from previous infections.

The country's total cases of the coronavirus reached 34.56 million on Friday. India's daily caseload has halved since September and the country reported 10,549 new cases on Friday.

Earlier this month, India identified 10 "at risk" countries and regions that include Europe, Britain, China, South Africa and New Zealand, among others. India has opened its borders to 99 countries overall.

Indian shares tumbled more than 2 per cent on Friday, as investors fled risky assets panicking over the impact of the new variant.  The losses were in line with steep falls seen in markets across Asia.