World ‘punishing’ South Africa for transparency as Australia, the US and Canada impose travel bans

More countries have joined a wave of travel bans imposed on South Africa, following local scientists’ data sharing on the B.1.1.529 Covid variant – now given the designation of Omicron by the World Health Organisation.

Late on Friday, the United States, Canada, Australia and the Philippines joined the growing list of countries to either suspend flights to and from South Africa, or add further restrictions on travel to the country.

President Joe Biden’s administration said it will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting on Monday, while Canada is banning the entry of foreign nationals into Canada that have travelled through southern Africa in the last 14 days.

The Philippines has immediately suspended flights from South Africa and six other countries until December 15 over concerns about a new variant, and Australia – which initially took a ‘wait and see’ approach to the variant – has now suspended flights from the country with immediate effect.

Returning Australian citizens and their dependents who have been in any of the countries in the past 14 days must enter supervised quarantine on arrival. Other travellers from those locations will not be allowed to enter Australia.

These countries now join the UK, the European Union (and specific bans from the Netherlands and Germany), Israel, Japan, Malaysia, and others in shunning South Africa and its neighbours.

Southern African nations including Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique have been included in the bans.

We’re being punished for transparency

South African government departments have expressed disappointment and frustration over the bans.

Tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu said the bans, coming at peak travel season, will do significant damage to the sector, and Department of International Relations and Cooperation minister Naledi Pandor slammed the bans as being premature. Both departments are engaging with international governments to reconsider.

Health minister Joe Phaahla described the bans as ‘knee-jerk’, and entirely unwarranted and unjustified. He said that the announcement and sharing of data around the new variant was done in the interest of transparency, and out of a duty to alert the world about the potential dangers of the emerging variant.

The variant was not first discovered in South Africa – it was sequenced in Botswana initially – and has since appeared in other countries like Belgium, in patients with no ties to South Africa. Yet South Africa is now bearing the brunt of the world’s response to the news.

Scientists and researchers have described the response and travel bans on South Africa as ‘punitive’, that may incentivise secrecy around new Covid variants.

“The announcement caused some panic, some consternation and uncertainty. It’s somewhat expected in an announcement of this nature, where we’re dealing with a moving target, so to speak. However, some of the reaction has been unjustified – especially that coming from Europe and the UK and other countries,” Phaalha said.

“The announcement was done to be in line with the norms and standards as prescribed by the World Health Organization…that we should act with transparency.”

Phaahla said that much of the reaction is based on fear from other countries that the new variant will be highly transmissible and prove to be resistant to vaccination and natural immunity. However, he said that, as the initial briefing made clear, there is not yet any evidence that this is the case and scientists stressed that studies are in the early stages.

South Africa’s National Coronavirus Command Council was set to meet on Sunday to discuss the new variant and possible measures to take to mitigate its spread. Given the urgency of the matter – especially the international community’s response to South Africa – the meeting has now been brought forward to Saturday (27 November).

Phaalha said that, while nothing has yet been concluded, the rising number of infections locally probably points to coming restrictions – specifically on gatherings. He said at this stage the government knows which interventions work and which do not.

Specifics around these interventions are still to be discussed.

On Friday, South Africa recorded 2,828 new cases of Covid-19, with 12 new deaths. Gauteng accounts for around 2,200 of the new cases, of which 50 were shown to be the Omicron variant (from a small sample of 71 cases).

Australia

Australia introduced new border security measures to protect against the new omicron variant. Direct flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique will be suspended, Health minister Greg Hunt said.

Returning Australian citizens and their dependents who have been in any of those countries in the past 14 days must enter supervised quarantine on arrival. Other travelers from those locations will not be allowed to enter Australia.

The Philippines also suspended flights from South Africa and six other regional countries until December 15, due to concerns about the new variant. Passengers who have visited any of the countries during the 14 days before their arrival will be barred entry, Bloomberg reported.

The country also lowered its target for a three-day vaccine drive to 9 million jabs from 15 million due to a shortage of syringes and other logistical issues, according to a government statement.

Omicron

The World Health Organisation’s Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) met on Friday to assess the B.1.1.592 variant and designated it the Greek symbol Omicron and elevated it to the highest level of Variant of Concern (VOC).

TAG-VE is an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assesses if specific mutations and combinations of mutations alter the behaviour of the virus.

The WHO group noted that in recent weeks, infections have increased steeply in South Africa, coinciding with the detection of the Omicron variant. The first known confirmed Omicron infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021, it said.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant.”

The variant is able to be detected quite easily with current testing methods, which has added to its rapid growth in positive samples.

“This variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” the WHO said. “There are a number of studies underway and the TAG-VE will continue to evaluate this variant. WHO will communicate new findings with Member States and to the public as needed.”

“Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this variant should be designated as a VOC, and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron.”

Variants of Concern – such as the Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta variants – exhibit an increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology, or an increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation, or a decrease in the effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines and therapeutics.

The WHO urged countries to enhance their surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand the new variant, and to share this information publicly.

The global health body also reminded individuals to take measures to reduce their risk of Covid-19, including proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving the ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated.


Read: 5 things you should know about the new B.1.1.529 Covid variant in South Africa

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World ‘punishing’ South Africa for transparency as Australia, the US and Canada impose travel bans