Updated at 7pm with EU decision. 

Malta is to ban travel to and from six southern African countries after scientists announced they had discovered a new, highly infectious COVID-19 variant. 

Scientists in South Africa announced they had detected a new COVID-19 variant with a large number of mutations on Friday. 

Health Minister Chris Fearne said travel to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be banned. The ban comes into effect as of 12am between Saturday and Sunday. 

On Friday evening EU officials holding an emergency meeting agreed to urge all 27 nations in the bloc to impose travel restrictions from that region.

"Member States agreed to introduce rapidly restrictions on all travel into the EU from 7 countries in the Southern Africa region: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe," European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer tweeted.

Locally, the change will mainly impact travel to and from South Africa and Namibia, which are currently on Malta's red list, meaning travel is allowed as long as the travellers are fully vaccinated with recognised vaccines. 

Travel to and from Lesotho, Zimbabwe,  Eswatini and Botswana was already restricted, as they are on the dark red list. This means travel is only allowed with the permission of the Superintendent of Public Health and 14-day quarantine is mandatory. 

The cases are mainly concentrated in three of South Africa's provinces including Gauteng, home to the economic hub Johannesburg and the capital Pretoria.

However, it has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong among travellers from South Africa.

Later on Friday, Belgium announced it had detected the first recorded case in Europe, from a person who had recently travelled from Egypt. 

Malta has not yet recorded a case of the variant, a health spokesperson confirmed.

The country's travel ban follows a similar move from the UK and after the EU separately proposed to prohibit traffic from the region due to the variant of concern, known as B.1.1.529. 

It is yet to be assigned a code-name and the World Health Organisation is still assessing how serious it is.

Scientists said they believe the new variant could be more infectious than Delta, which led to spikes all over the world, and more resistant to vaccines currently available.

Despite the ban, health sources said Malta is at less risk given the proximity between the countries and that few people travel to these African countries.  

The travel lists were last updated in October when five countries were removed off the red list and moved to the dark red list. Those coming from countries on the dark red list must quarantine upon arrival in Malta. 

South Africa has sharply condemned the decision of governments. It said of the UK's ban, that it was "rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps".

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