Dr. Peter Hotez, a professor and Dean of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, USA, had a clear message for G7 leaders on Saturday: “Forget about the travel bans, let’s go vaccinate the African people.”
Dr. Hotez was reacting to the emergence and spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant in southern Africa and the travel restrictions that many countries and regional bodies, including the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Japan and others, have imposed on southern African nations.
The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday designated the B.1.1.529 variant a ‘variant of concern’ and named it ‘Omicron’, after skipping two Greek letters ‘Nu’ and ‘Xi’ to avoid confusion and controversy.
The WHO said the Omicron variant has a large number of mutations and this could be an indication of how the variant would behave. It added that it was too early to know exactly how the new variant will behave and that studies were being carried out.
Dr. Hotez told CNN’s Jim Acosta that he solution was vaccinations, not travel bans, explaining that travel bans have not been very effective against COVID-19 which was first detected in China before spreading to the entire world.
“What we do know is travel bans have not been very effective this entire pandemic,” Dr. Hotez told Acosta when asked to comment on the travel bans.
Former President Donald J. Trump imposed a travel ban on China last year but it was not able to stop the virus from entering the United States from southern Europe.
Beyond the travel bans, Dr. Hotez argued that “we’ve not seen any evidence that Omicron produces more severe disease than any of the other variants,” and that while some previous variants had been partially vaccine resistant, Omicron was “unlikely to be totally resistant.” He said ongoing tests would reveal the right course of action.
“I think much more productive than travel bans would be refocusing our energies on trying to vaccinate southern Africa, because that’s how these new variants emerge,” he said. “They emerge out of large unvaccinated populations. Alpha came out of the unvaccinated population in the UK in 2020. Delta, the unvaccinated population in India in 2021. Now Omicron, among unvaccinated population in Africa.”
He said “if the G7 leaders are serious about stopping new variants, forget about the travel bans, let’s go vaccinate the African people.”
On Friday, the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also opposed the imposition of travel restrictions on some southern African nations over the newly detected COVID-19 variant named Omicron, saying that “imposing bans on travelers from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded a meaningful outcome.”
“Africa CDC strongly discourages the imposition of travel ban for people originating from countries that have reported this variant. In fact, over the duration of this pandemic, we have observed that imposing bans on travelers from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded a meaningful outcome. Rather implementing PHSM should be prioritized,” Africa CDC said in a statement.
The United States, the European Union and several other countries around the world, including the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan, have imposed travel restrictions on eight southern African nations over the new variant.
The Chief Executive Officer of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Dr. Seth Berkley, also asserted on Saturday that new variants of COVID-19 will continue to emerge “as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated.”
Dr. Berkley was reacting to the emergence of Omicron, the new variant first identified in Botswana on November 11 and found in several countries around the world, including in South Africa where it is spreading rapidly in Gauteng province, a predominantly urban area containing the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and may be present in other provinces. Omicron has worried scientists and politicians and led to panic, including travel restrictions.
In his brief statement sent to Today News Africa on Saturday, Dr. Berkley argued that investment should be scaled up to vaccinate more people in the world to end the current pandemic.
“While we still need to know more about Omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged,” he said. “We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world’s population, not just the wealthy parts. The world needs to work together to ensure equitable access to vaccines, now.”
He added, “This means manufacturers and donors providing the visibility for countries to roll out the largest national immunization programmes in their history, and it means recipient countries using all resources available to get safe and effective vaccines to those that need them. No-one is safe until everyone is safe.”