Mounting evidence suggests that the new coronavirus variant Omicron has begun to spread in the community in some European countries, making border closures ineffective and spurring calls for an end to travel restrictions.
The latest laboratory tests from Britain and the Netherlands showed that Omicron was present in countries before the first restrictions were imposed on travelers from southern Africa last week, while a test in Germany discovered the variant in a person with no travel history.
Growing evidence of community transmission in Europe has raised further doubts about the travel-ban strategy that many countries, including Canada, have chosen.
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The news from Europe is fueling anger in southern Africa, where travel restrictions have had a devastating effect on already battered economies. In a tweet on Tuesday, Mark Mendelson, head of the Department of Infectious Diseases at Cape Town Hospital, said the ban is a “grand exhibition of meaninglessness and discrimination”.
Health officials in the Netherlands announced on Tuesday that the new COVID-19 variant had been confirmed in samples taken as early as November 19, a week before the flight ban.
The country’s RIVM health institute said it had detected omicrons in samples on November 19 and 23. The institute said the presence of the variant in the samples was detected in tests on Monday. “It is not yet clear whether these people had visited southern Africa,” it said.
In Scotland, authorities revealed they had traced Omicron to nine people linked to an incident on 20 November, six days before the travel ban. Officials said none of the nine people had recently traveled to southern Africa or had been in contact with anyone who had recently traveled there.
In Germany, officials said they had confirmed an Omicron case in a man who was neither abroad nor in contact with a traveller. And in Belgium, according to earlier reports, a case of Omicron was found in a traveler who returned from Egypt on November 11 and had no links to southern Africa.
Many South Africans expressed outrage over the latest reports on Tuesday. He said evidence of community transmission in Europe was evidence that the travel ban was an unfair punishment from southern African countries, where the type was first detected last week by scientists in Botswana and South Africa.
Many people in these countries have already lost jobs or businesses, or have been forced to cancel long-delayed reunions with family members as a result of travel restrictions. The tourism industry, which is a vital job provider in all southern African countries, has been severely damaged as a result of travel restrictions.
Pro. Mendelson, who works at Grote Schur Hospital and the University of Cape Town, said the restrictions should be rolled back. “Not only are they pointless, but they are unnecessarily destroying economies, exacerbating social distress and deeply impacting families that are once again falling apart,” he said.
The new version follows a sharp rise in COVID-19 cases in South Africa’s economic heartland Gauteng province, where the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria are located.
This surge, in turn, is driving a significant national increase in cases, which appears to be the start of a fourth wave of the pandemic. Officials reported 4,373 new cases of COVID-19 in South Africa on Tuesday. This represents a positivity rate of 10.2 percent. Barely a week ago, the positivity rate in South Africa was only 2 per cent.
The World Health Organization said in an advisory issued on Tuesday that the travel restrictions would not stop the international spread of the new variant, and would “put a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.” In addition, the restrictions could harm global health efforts during a pandemic, discouraging countries from reporting and sharing their data on new forms and cases, the WHO said.
The agency’s director general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, thanked South Africa and Botswana for locating, sequencing and reporting the new variant, as fast as they did.
“It is very worrying to me that those countries are now being punished by others for doing the right thing,” Dr. Tedros said at a briefing for the agency’s member states in Geneva on Tuesday.
“I am equally concerned that many member states are introducing blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own, and which will only worsen inequalities,” he said.
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