South Africa on Friday attacked a global rush to impose travel bans to slow the spread of a new Covid variant as “draconian,” unscientific and contrary to WHO advise.
South Africa complained Saturday that it is being “punished” for detecting a new Covid-19 variant Omicron which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern” and is more transmissible than the dominant Delta strain.
The decision by a number of countries around the world to ban flights from southern Africa following the discovery of the variant “is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker,” the foreign affairs ministry said in a statement.
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” it said.
The ministry pointed out that new variants had been discovered in other parts of the world.
“Each of those cases have had no recent links with Southern Africa, but the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in Southern Africa,” it said.
Israel and Belgium announced after South Africa that they also had detected cases of Omicron.
The government insisted that South Africa’s “capacity to test and its ramped-up vaccination programme, backed up by a world-class scientific community should give our global partners the comfort that we are doing as well as they are in managing the pandemic”.
With more than 2.95 million cases and 89,783 deaths, South Africa is the worst-hit country in Africa by the pandemic.
The UK has introduced new travel conditions for six African countries, including South Africa, due to growing concern over a newly discovered coronavirus variant, Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced.
From noon Friday, South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini will be added to the travel red list and flights from those countries would be temporarily banned, he said on Thursday.
“From 12:00 on Friday, non-UK and Irish residents will be banned from entering England if they have been in the six countries in the past 10 days. Any British or Irish resident arriving from the countries after 04:00 on Sunday will have to quarantine in a hotel, with those returning before that being asked to isolate at home,” said Mr Javid.
The UK is treading cautiously so as to protect its borders and residents, he added.
Following the announcement, British and Irish nationals arriving from these countries must quarantine, and citizens from these countries will be denied entry. Direct flights will be temporarily banned until quarantine facilities are set up.
South Africa and neighboring countries were in October taken off the hotel quarantine list when the UK reviewed its Covid travel policies.
However, this week, experts said a new rapidly spreading variant with multiple mutations was detected in South Africa. Experts describe the new variant, B.1.1.529, as “the worst one we’ve seen so far.”
Cases of the new variant have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana, but so far no case has been detected in the UK.
Mr Javid said that scientists were “deeply concerned” about the new variant but more needed to be learned about it.
Travelers who have returned from these countries in the last 10 days are being asked to take a PCR test by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
The UK said the flight ban will remain in place until the hotel quarantine system is up and running.
Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) are meeting South African officials on Friday to assess the evolving situation in the country.
The new variant, which has been designated a new variant under investigation by the UKHSA, is heavily mutated and the confirmed cases are mostly concentrated in one province in South Africa.
Scientists say the variant has 50 mutations overall and more than 30 on the spike protein, which is the target of most vaccines and the key the virus uses to unlock the doorway into body cells.
Experts in South Africa have said the variant is “very different” from others that have circulated, with concerns that it could be more transmissible but also able to get around parts of the immune system.
The variant was first detected in Botswana on November 11, where three cases have been recorded. In South Africa, the first case was identified on November 14.