President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday blasted “unjustified” travel bans imposed by many countries following the emergence of the Omicron variant which was first detected in Botswana on November 11 and reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa on November 24 after it began spreading rapidly in Gauteng province, a predominantly urban area containing the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria.
“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic,” Ramaphosa said.
He added that “the prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant.”
The South African Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation said the latest round of travel bans “is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”
It added in a statement that “excellent science should be applauded and not punished.”
Experts have cautioned that there was not enough data to draw conclusions about the severity of the variant. However, early cases have caused only mild illness.
The Omicron variant has since been detected in Israel, Belgium, Israel, Hong Kong, Canada, Australia, Denmark, the Netherland.
The WHO named the B.1.1.529 variant on Friday a ‘variant of concern’, explaining that it has a large number of mutations than other variants, including the Delta variant.
Since then, several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Japan, Australia, Thailand and Sri Lanka have announced that they were blocking travel from South Africa and other southern African nations.
The WHO has cautioned nations against hastily imposing travel restrictions without knowing much about the various. It advised countries to take a “risk-based and scientific approach.”
On Saturday, 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: “Forget about the travel bans, let’s go vaccinate the African people.”
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.”
Also on Saturday, the Chief Executive Officer of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, Dr. Seth Berkley, asserted that new variants of COVID-19 will continue to emerge “as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated.”
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.”
On Sunday, U.S. President Joseph R. Biden Jr. met in person with his Chief Medical Advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and members of his White House COVID Response Team, and was told that the current vaccines are likely to provide ‘a degree of protection’ against Omicron variant.
“Dr. Fauci informed the President that while it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant, he continues to believe that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe cases of COVID,” the White House said in a readout.
Dr. Fauci and members of the COVID Response Team were at the White House to update President Biden on the latest developments related to the Omicron variant.
Dr. Fauci also reiterated that boosters for fully vaccinated individuals provide the strongest available protection from COVID.
“The COVID Response Team’s immediate recommendation to all vaccinated adults is to get a booster shot as soon as possible; all adults are eligible for a booster if they were vaccinated six months ago or more with Pfizer or Moderna, or two months ago or more with Johnson & Johnson. Importantly, those adults and children who are not yet fully vaccinated should get vaccinated immediately. The President will provide an update about the new variant and the U.S. response on Monday,” the White House said.