The United Kingdom announced on Saturday that it had confirmed two cases of the Omicron COVID-19 variant first detected in Botswana on November 11 and spreading rapidly in South Africa, despite its travel restrictions imposed on several countries in southern Africa.
UK health Secretary Sajid Javid said he had been informed by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) of two cases of the Omicron variant.
“the two cases are linked and there is a connection with travel to southern Africa,” Javid tweeted. “These individuals are self-isolating with their households while further testing and contact tracing is underway.”
Javid added follow-up tweets that additional targeted testing would take place as a precaution “in the affected areas -Nottingham and Chelmsford- and sequencing all positive cases.”
Nottingham is located about 100 miles north of London, the capital of the United Kingdom, while Chelmsford is about 30 miles east of London, in the county of Essex.
Javid also announced that the United Kingdom would add Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola to the six southern African countries already on its travel red list, effective from 4 a.m. Sunday.
Germany and the Czech Republic also said they had suspected cases of the variant in their countries, an indication that travel restrictions do little to curb the spread of the variant.
Australia joined other countries on Saturday by imposing their own travel restrictions on several countries in southern Africa.
The decision to impose travel restrictions over new variants of the coronavirus goes against recommendations of most epidemiologists.
The Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday 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, 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.
The United States, the European Union and several other countries announced travel restrictions on several southern African nations where the variant has been identified.
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.”
Linda Geddes, a writer at Gavi explains in an opinion piece that Omicron “contains a high number of mutations within its spike protein, some of which may help the virus to evade vaccine-induced immune protection.”
“Although the full implications of the discovery are currently unclear, scientists have emphasised the need for continued surveillance, and stressed that protective measures such as social distancing, mask-wearing and vaccination (where available) will help to limit its spread,” Geddes writes.
Geddes adds, “The variant, named B.1.1.529, was first detected in Botswana on 11 November, although other cases have since been identified in South Africa and in a patient who travelled to Hong Kong from South Africa. In a statement released on 25 November, South Africa’s Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said that 22 positive cases had been identified so far, with further genome sequencing currently taking place that might identify others.
“According to Prof Tulio de Oliveira, Director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform at South Africa’s University of KwaZulu-Natal, there are early signs from diagnostic laboratories that the new variant has rapidly increased in Gauteng province, a predominantly urban area containing the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria, and may be present in other provinces.”