The discovery of a complex new COVID-19 variant with dozens of mutations, detected in five countries and igniting a rapid surge of cases in South Africa, has triggered a wave of travel bans and border controls worldwide.
Scientists in South Africa announced on Thursday that they had identified the worrisome new variant, which may be more transmissible than others. Within hours, Britain announced a ban on flights from South Africa and several other African countries. On Friday, a large number of countries issued similar bans, including Canada and the United States, which prohibited entry by foreign nationals from several countries in southern Africa.
The World Health Organization announced on Friday that the new variant is a “variant of concern,” the fifth to be given this designation. The variant has been named Omicron, a Greek letter. Preliminary evidence suggests that it has a growth advantage over other variants, allowing it to spread faster, and has an increased risk of reinfection, the WHO said.
Late on Friday, South African officials said there was no indication so far that the existing vaccines are significantly less effective against the new variant.
Some of the earliest cases of the new variant were detected in Hong Kong and Israel among travellers from countries in southern Africa. But on Friday, a case was detected in Belgium with no known connection to southern Africa, suggesting that the variant could already be circulating widely in many countries. The Belgian case involved a traveller from Egypt, at the opposite end of the African continent.
South Africa has the largest number of confirmed cases of the variant, about 100 so far, and neighbouring Botswana has detected four cases, including one of the first known. The new variant is believed to be the likely cause of a recent dramatic increase in cases in South Africa’s Gauteng province, a populous region that includes Johannesburg and Pretoria.
There are concerns that the variant is likely to have emerged in an African country with a low vaccination rate, after nearly a year of global vaccine shortages and lengthy delays in sharing vaccines with low-income countries. Only 7 per cent of Africans have been fully vaccinated so far. Even in middle-income South Africa, only 24 per cent of people have been fully vaccinated, largely because the country was unable to get a significant supply of vaccines until several months after wealthier countries had begun administering doses.
Omicron has about 50 mutations, including more than 30 in the spike protein, which coronaviruses use to enter human cells. This is about twice the number of such mutations in the Delta variant.
“The epidemiological picture suggests that this variant may be more transmissible, and several mutations are consistent with enhanced transmissibility,” said Sharon Peacock, a professor of public health and microbiology at the University of Cambridge.
Some of the variant’s mutations have also been associated with immune evasion, suggesting that existing vaccines may be less effective against it. But the evidence is not yet clear. Studies are being conducted in South Africa but will take several weeks to complete.
Among the governments that are now banning or restricting travellers from South Africa and other southern African countries are those of Britain, Germany, Italy, Austria, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Malaysia, Israel and Hong Kong. The new policies range from a lengthy quarantine for travellers to a suspension of all direct flights from the region. The restrictions caused a drop in global stocks and oil prices on Friday as investors fretted about the risk of broader economic damage.
One plane from South Africa to the Netherlands was caught on Friday by the travel ban in the midst of its flight. After it landed in Amsterdam, passengers were required to remain on board for several hours, and then were taken off to be tested for the virus.
British Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, defending the travel ban, described the new variant as “the most significant” to be detected by scientists in the pandemic so far.
But the World Health Organization, which convened a special meeting of its technical advisory group on Friday, took a different position, and cautioned against any travel restrictions until the new variant has been properly studied.
“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier told a media briefing in Geneva.
“At this point, again, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” he said.
He also praised South African scientists for their “remarkable speed” in detecting and reporting the new variant. “The WHO is grateful to the South African researchers, and it’s been outstanding how open and transparent they have been.”
Many scientists and health experts said South Africa is being unfairly punished for the speed and transparency of its detection of new variants. The travel bans will inflict devastating damage on the economies of southern Africa, where many countries are heavily dependent on tourism.
“Do not discriminate against countries that share their findings openly,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist who leads the WHO’s technical team on the virus, in a tweet on Friday.
South Africa had expected about 300,000 British visitors from December to February, creating up to 300,000 jobs – a crucial boost for its battered economy, especially after massive losses from an earlier British travel ban this year. Now, those jobs are likely to be lost.
Despite its recent surge of COVID-19 cases, South Africa still has only a small fraction of Britain’s daily case load. On Friday, for example, South Africa, with a population of 60 million, reported about 2,800 new cases, while Britain, home to 67 million, reported more than 50,000 new cases.
The South African government said the travel ban was rushed and premature, and that it will appeal to the British government to reconsider.
“Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” said Naledi Pandor, the South African Minister of International Relations.
Tulio de Oliveira, one of the South African scientists who helped detect the new variant, said the world should support South Africa and the African continent in its battle against the virus “and not discriminate or isolate it.”
In a tweet, he added: “We have been very transparent with scientific information. We identified, made data public and raised the alarm as the infections are increasing. We did this to protect our country and the world, in spite of potentially suffering massive discrimination.”
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