JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – South Africa said on Friday that imposing restrictions on travellers from the country because of a newly identified Covid-19 variant was unjustified, after a British ban on flights from southern African countries that others have followed.
The WHO designated omicron as “of concern,” its most serious level, following a meeting of its technical advisory group.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke on Friday afternoon and discussed ways to reopen international travel, a Downing Street spokesperson said.
“Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries.”
South African scientist feel the country has been punished for its transparency.
“Everyone is frustrated in South Africa,” Marc Mendelson, professor of infectious diseases at Groote Schuur hospital, at the University of Cape Town, said. “Selective travel restrictions really don’t prevent the spread of variants.” It might also deter other countries from disclosing new variants, he added. “You’ve got to have this knowledge out there globally.”
Even before this latest discovery, South African scientists were trying to understand how new variants might affect the future of the country’s epidemic. Scientific modelling suggested that peak hospital rates would be lower than in the second and third waves even with this hypothetical variant, because of the higher vaccination rates among the oldest South Africans.
With this actual new variant, “two critical pieces of information are not there — what it does to the clinical severity of the disease”, and what the variant might do to vaccine immunity, Mendelson said. “The first one we cannot answer until it has played out… it hasn’t developed into enough hospitalisations to make that call.” He added: “We need the clinical data and the vaccine data, and that’s at least two or three weeks away.”
Britain said the variant was the most significant found yet and banned flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia. European Union states also agreed to suspend travel to southern Africa, the presidency of the EU said.