June 12, 2024

Omicron travel bans have left ‘a trail of destruction’ in Botswana, says Dr. Sikhulile Moyo, scientist whose African team identified B.1.1.529 variant

The Omicron travel bans imposed by various countries on Botswana have left ‘a trail of destruction’ in the southern African nation, says Dr. Sikhulile Moyo, a scientist whose team identified the B.1.1.529 variant in early November before South Africa reported it to the World Health Organization on November 24. The WHO named it Omicron on November 26 and the travel bans followed the same day.

U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. issued a presidential proclamation on November 26 restricting entry into the United States to most non-U.S. citizens in Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, South Africa,Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe in an effort to slow the introduction of the new Omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. The travel ban went into effect on Monday, November 29, just three days after the Omicron variant was classified a variant of concern by the World Health Organization on November 26.

With specific exceptions, the presidential proclamation suspended entry into the United States, as immigrants or nonimmigrants, of noncitizens of the United States who were physically present within the eight southern African countries during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the United States.

Under that travel ban, citizens and lawful permanent residents of the United States, certain family members, and other individuals who meet specified exceptions, who had been in one of the eight southern African nations will be allowed to enter the United States.

Other countries in Europe, Asia and elsewhere also imposed travel bans on African nations over the Omicron variant, a decision that has damaged businesses in those countries that are still recovering from the COVID-19 economic turmoil.

“We were saddened. For me, personally, I We were saddened. For me, personally, I felt that after two years into the epidemic, clearly as the global health community, we could be responding better and coordinating better,” Dr. Moyo, the laboratory director at the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership and a research associate with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health told NPR’s Melody Schreiber in an interview.

“How do you reward the countries that alert you of a potential dangerous pathogen with travel bans? My country was put on a red list, and I didn’t feel good about that. We know the repercussions. Flights were canceled, goods were not coming into the country, a lot of businesses lost millions. And our vaccine supply was being threatened because of delays on the way. Quite a trail of destruction. So it was a roller coaster for us. On the one extreme, we felt [we were] contributing to the world in a small way. And on the other end, we felt, is that how you reward scientists or scientific progression?” Moyo said.

Four international travelers from Europe had tested positive for COVID-19 on November 11, four days after entering the country on November 7. When the cases were genetically sequenced, where the genetic code of the virus is analyzed to look for new strains or worrying changes, the scientists were stunned. They had just come across a variant they had never encountered before and alerted the world.

Dr. Moyo told NPR, “When we looked at it, we compared it with other sequences circulating in Botswana, and we realized this is an unusual pattern of mutations. The number of mutations that it had was just unbelievable.Article continues after sponsor message. We immediately alerted the Minister of Health on Monday, [Nov.] 22. We searched the databases as well, and we realized it was not [previously] seen in Africa. The closest that could be seen as a lineage was called B.1.1.207, which was a lineage common in United Arab Emirates. We got concerned because when we inquired to the Department of Health, we got notice that these individuals were traveling together. Other groups [in South Africa] were also sequencing [samples] at the same time. On Tuesday, they saw that we had deposited some sequences [in a regional database] that looked similar to them. So, on the 23rd, we loaded our sequences to the public database. On the 24th, South Africa went ahead and reported to the WHO, and on the 26th, the WHO convened a meeting and it was called a variant of concern.”

However, instead of praising them, the world slapped sanctions on South Africa and Botswana and other southern African nations where the variant had not even been documented.

“A number of people are saying, “You scientists, you bigmouths, look what you’ve done. You’ve locked out Christmas,” he said.

Asked whether the African ban was outright racism, Dr. Moyo responded, “I would call it an unfair treatment of African countries. The alpha variant was raging in the U.K. [months ago], and none of the countries put the U.K. on the red list. Because we understand that it’s a global village. Of course, we enhanced border screening, enhanced requirements for entering into the country, including maybe a quarantine and testing. But it was never shutting our door, because we understand that these viruses don’t respect our natural borders.”

Dr. Moyo added that what Botswana needs now is not a ban but vaccines. He said, “Other countries are going into boosters, and we are still struggling to reach all our population. We still have to vaccinate a large segment of our population. The government of Botswana has been very proactive in reaching out to other countries for procuring [vaccines]. But sometimes the delays are beyond whether you have the money to buy or not. The health care system [in Botswana during the pandemic] has been battered, and strengthening the health-care system, making sure that we have adequate resources in case we enter into a serious time [will be important]. Right now, the infections have jumped. Every day, we have about two to three times more infections than we’ve seen the previous day. [Note: The average daily count is 298 new cases.] But most important, we need to make sure that we more than multiply our sequencing capacity by 10 times.”

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