Sat 27 November 2021:
Fears of the spread of a new coronavirus strain discovered in South Africa, which has been designated as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO), have prompted countries around the world to impose travel restrictions.
Early evidence suggests that the new B.1.1529 variant, called Omicron after a letter in the Greek alphabet, poses an increased risk of reinfection than other highly transmissible strains, according to a WHO advisory panel released on Friday.
The rise of Omicron, which was first discovered in South Africa and has since been detected in Belgium, Israel, Botswana, and Hong Kong, alarmed international authorities.
As researchers try to figure out if the mutation is vaccine-resistant, the European Union and the United Kingdom have imposed travel restrictions on travelers from various countries in southern Africa, while the United States has indicated that similar restrictions will begin on Monday.
Omicron has been identified as a “variant of concern” by the WHO because it has some “worrisome” properties, according to Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 Technical Lead.
“It has a large number of mutations and some of these mutations have some worrying characteristics,” Van Kerkhove said in a video posted on Twitter. She added that multiple studies are under way in South Africa and other countries to better understand the severity, transmissibility and characteristics of Omicron, however.
The Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution met today to review what is known about the #COVID19 variant B.1.1.529.
They advised WHO that it should be designated a Variant of Concern.
WHO has named it Omicron, in line with naming protocols https://t.co/bSbVas9yds pic.twitter.com/Gev1zIt1Ek
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) November 26, 2021
The WHO also said it is likely to take weeks to determine how effective current COVID-19 vaccines are against the variant.
Helen Rees, chair of the WHO’s African Regional Immunization Technical Advisory Group, said scientists still do not know enough about the new variant to begin sounding the alarm – and cautioned against jumping to any conclusions.
“The fact that we are able to identify changes quickly is good news. It’s good news for the world. But we must be careful that we don’t then jump [to] conclusion[s]. We need to understand much more about this,” Rees told Al Jazeera from Johannesburg.
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla on Friday condemned international reactions to Omicron as “unjustified”, telling reporters that global leaders were “finding scapegoats to deal with what is a worldwide problem”.
The @WHO has identified a new COVID variant which is spreading through Southern Africa. As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries.
— President Biden (@POTUS) November 26, 2021
Phaahla said during a media briefing that South Africa was acting with transparency and travel bans were against the norms and standards of the WHO.
Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said travel bans were not an appropriate response. “First of all, we know that travel restrictions do very little to stop the spread of COVID-19,” Adalja told Al Jazeera.
“Number two, it penalises countries like South Africa for being open and sharing this data.”
Mosa Moshabela, a professor of public health at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, said while scientists still do not know exactly how Omicron behaves, the two main concerns are its transmissibility and its potential resistance to immunity from vaccines and previous infections.
Moshabela said another considerable fear for African nations is that the new variant could lead to severe illness and put a strain on healthcare systems.
The US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries to try to contain a new coronavirus variant spreading there.
From Monday, only US citizens and residents will be allowed to travel from the region.
This follows a similar flight ban imposed by the EU and the UK. Canada is also introducing travel restrictions.
Canada is banning foreign travellers to the country from seven African countries. Foreign nationals who have travelled in any of these countries within the previous 14 days will not be permitted entry into Canada.
“As a precautionary measure, until January 31, 2022, the Government of Canada is implementing enhanced border measures for all travellers who have been in the Southern Africa region — including South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Namibia— within the last 14 days before arriving in Canada,” a recently published press release reads.
Brazil will shut its borders to travellers arriving from six southern African countries, the chief of staff to president Jair Bolsonaro said.
For his part, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on the world to speed up “efforts to deliver on vaccine equity ASAP and protect the most vulnerable everywhere” due to the “concerning” mutations of Omicron.
Tedros said on Wednesday that he hoped a consensus could be reached at a World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial meeting next week for an IP waiver for coronavirus vaccines, a measure that already has the support of more than 100 countries.
FILE PHOTO: https://sacoronavirus.co.za
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