Variant of concern

Omicron in 23 countries: WHO slams those who penalised SA

Travel ban also hampered research and lacked any logic, say experts

Tanya Farber Senior science reporter
South Africa has been thanked profusely by the WHO for its sterling scientific work and transparency with regard to Omicron.
South Africa has been thanked profusely by the WHO for its sterling scientific work and transparency with regard to Omicron.
Image: 123RF/rawpixel

The World Health Organisation has lambasted countries across the globe for victimising SA in the wake of it revealing the new Covid-19 Omicron variant.

The variant has been found in 23 countries at the moment, the WHO said, but a backlog of cases across the globe could reveal its presence in several more.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing on Thursday: “It is deeply concerning to me that SA and Botswana are being penalised.”

He thanked the two countries for “detecting, sequencing and reporting so rapidly” on Omicron, and said that a “blanket travel ban will not prevent the international spread of the virus and will place a heavy burden on livelihoods”.

The ban has also hampered research by slowing down the transportation of samples around the globe for in-depth testing in labs,” he said.

According to WHO technical lead on Covid-19, Maria van Kerkhove, scientists in SA “should be commended and we need to strengthen our surveillance and sequencing around the world and have better geographic representation across the planet”.

She added: “We do not want to see countries being penalised for sharing information. A special thank you goes out to so many researchers across SA.”

According to Ghebreyesus: “The emergence of Omicron has captured global attention. Twenty-three countries have now reported cases and we expect that number to grow. We are learning all the time about Omicron but there is more to learn about transmission, and its impact on severity of disease.”

Kerkhove said that since the variant was classified as a variant of concern “the timeline will change” as a backlog of cases is analysed.

She added: “It is absolutely critical to get vaccinated as vaccines are saving lives.”

Dr Michael Ryan, who heads the health emergencies programme at the WHO, said that “banning flights except for your own citizens makes no epidemiological sense”.

“A virus doesn't know what country you're a citizen of,” said Ryan.

He said countries with confirmed cases had faced no travel bans, yet others with no cases had seen bans and that this showed the dire lack of logic in knee-jerk decisions.

He added: “Healthcare workers  are sick of counting the dead, and losing their friends.”

He said that the enduring crisis in Europe is still the Delta variant and that it was crucial for vaccine rollouts to continue unabated.

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