With a spike in the number of other countries detecting the new variant of Covid-19, several nations have implemented worldwide travel bans that may mean we need to rethink our plans for the festive season.The detection of a new Covid-19 variant, first announced by South Africa, has seen a slew of countries and national airlines cancelling flights and implementing travel bans. While the travel bans apply mostly to several nations from the Southern African region, the variant is reported to have been detected in parts of Europe as well as Hong Kong. The B.1.1.529, or Omicron variant of Covid-19, was confirmed by the World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this week. “The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on 24 November 2021. The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterised by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021. This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” said the global body in a statement on its website on 26 November 2021. Meanwhile, Dr Michael Ryan, the Head of Emergencies at WHO, has urged decision-makers and the international community to not have a “knee-jerk reaction” and to see what the data reveals. “We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any kind of mention of any kind of variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel. It’s really important that we remain open, and stay focused,” Dr Ryan noted.
“Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries.” Minister Naledi Pandor
South Africa’s government respondsSouth Africa’s Minister of Tourism, Lindiwe Sisulu delivered a statement on 26 November 2021 noting that the country would continue to work with other nations to prevent the spread of the virus. “While this is most disappointing, South Africa will continue working with policymakers in the UK, Japan, Israel and European Union to ensure that the best possible interventions are put in place. I would like to commend the South African scientists on their diligence and all the work they have done and remain confident that all measures will be put in place to mitigate the spread of the virus… We remain open for business and tourism travel and we appreciate the continued support from various partners across the world and are confident that through the tourism recovery plan in place, we will reignite demand and once more be tourism strong,” stated Minister Lindiwe Sisulu,
The announcement of the new variant and subsequent travel bans has also seen South Africa’s Department of International Relations & Cooperation (DIRCO) make several statements relating to the already-implemented bans.“Whilst we respect the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, we need to remember that this pandemic requires collaboration and sharing of expertise. Our immediate concern is the damage that these restrictions are causing to families, the travel and tourism industries and business,” commented Minister Naledi Pandor in an official DIRCO release. South Africa is said to be engaging with numerous countries to urge them to rethink their decision. “Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” said Minister Naledi Pandor in a separate statement made by DIRCO a day earlier.
What we know thus far about the variant
- Following a “detrimental change in Covid-19 epidemiology”, the WHO designated the B.1.1.529 a volatile organic compound (VOC), naming it Omicron
- This variant has many mutations, which are “concerning”
- Evidence suggests the variant carries a higher risk of reinfection
- Reported cases are observed to be increasing in most provinces within South Africa
- Existing SARS-CoV-2 PCR tests continue to detect this variant
- There is an absence of a target gene called S gene dropout or S gene target failure, which can be used as a marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation.