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Passengers queue to get a COVID-19 PCR test before traveling on international flights, at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa on Nov. 26,.SUMAYA HISHAM/Reuters

After weeks of criticism from scientists and global health experts, Ottawa has dropped a travel rule that had rejected COVID-19 tests from South Africa and had required Canadian travellers to get tests from third countries.

The rule, denounced by the head of the World Health Organization and many other health specialists, was widely seen as an unfair and irrational snub of laboratory science in the region where the Omicron variant was first detected and reported last month.

The criticism has mounted in recent days, creating a public-relations disaster for Canada as scientists argued that the testing rule was an example of the hypocrisy of Omicron travel bans. Western governments have banned primarily African travellers, despite evidence that the variant is now present in 63 countries worldwide.

Under the border-control rules imposed in late November, Ottawa banned all foreign travellers from 10 African countries. Canadian citizens were still allowed to fly home, but only if they obtained negative COVID-19 tests from a third country in transit.

This proved almost impossible to do, stranding many Canadians and forcing others to spend time in Ethiopia to seek tests, in defiance of official Canadian warnings about the dangers of visiting the Horn of Africa country where civil war is raging.

A week ago, Ottawa introduced a brief exemption to the testing rule, but only for Canadians flying on one airline, Lufthansa, and only until Dec. 13.

Under the new policy announced this weekend, the exemption has been expanded. The third-country rule has been dropped for Canadians travelling from South Africa on all airlines for the next four weeks, effectively ending the ban on South African tests – although the travel ban for non-Canadians will continue.

No reason was provided for the change of policy, which was communicated in e-mails to Canadian citizens in South Africa and in an amendment to the online version of the Canadian border rules. Canadians in the other nine African countries under the travel ban will still have to follow the third-country rule, although now they will have the option of getting the test in South Africa.

The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said last week that he found it “dismaying” that some countries insisted on third-country testing instead of accepting tests from African countries on the travel-ban lists.

“Respect is owed to the science and technology expertise in African countries as well as their transparency and sharing, including data related to the Omicron variant, " he said on Twitter.

Of the Group of Seven countries, Canada was the only one that imposed a third-country testing rule for its own citizens returning from the banned African countries, although Japan has a broader ban on all visitors until the end of this month.

Many of Africa’s leading scientists said they were shocked by Canada’s testing rule. One of South Africa’s top scientists, vaccinology professor Shabir Madhi, said he was speechless at the policy.

Christian Happi, a molecular-biology professor who heads the African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases, said the Canadian third-country testing rule was “discriminatory and ridiculous.”

Mia Malan, editor-in-chief of the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism in South Africa, said the Canadian travel ban and testing rule was contributing to “dangerous levels of racialization and stigmatization” by implying that South African science cannot be trusted.

South African research last year, published in a scientific journal, found that more than 80 per cent of early introductions of COVID-19 cases in South Africa were from Europe – but the country did not respond with selective travel bans to target European travellers, she noted in an analysis published last week.

South Africa’s Minister of International Relations, Naledi Pandor, said on Sunday that the travel bans by Western governments are destroying the economies of southern African countries. “We are angry, as South Africa and I expect them to lift this thing,” she told a South African newspaper.

In a scientific update on Sunday, the WHO said the Omicron variant seem to have a “growth advantage” over the Delta variant and appears to spread more quickly than Delta in countries such as Britain where the Delta variant had previously been dominant.

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