COVID-19 Omicron: WHO cautions on travel bans targeting Africa, rising concerns over spread in UK, EU countries

Putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has said through its regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti.

Ms Moeti, in a statement Sunday evening, said travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity. COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions,” she said.

According to Ms Moeti, “if restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations.”

She commended the transparency of South African and Botswana adding that they shared life-saving public health information.

“The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended. WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19.”

“This week, nations will be joining a special session of the World Health Assembly, organised by WHO to discuss how to collectively prepare and respond better to pandemics, building on their commitments to the International Health Regulations,” the official said.

She urged all countries to respect their legal obligations and implement scientifically based public health actions, adding, “It is critical that countries which are open with their data are supported as this is the only way to ensure we receive important data in a timely manner.

“While investigations continue into the Omicron variant, WHO recommends countries to take a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures which can limit its possible spread. Flight bans have been imposed on southern African countries, but so far only two have detected the new variant. Meanwhile, countries in other regions have reported cases of Omicron.”

WHO said it is scaling up support to genomic sequencing in Africa. Sequencing laboratories should have access to adequate human resources and testing reagents to work at full capacity, the statement read.

“WHO is ready to support the additional human resource needs as well as mobilise funds and technical expertise to reinforce COVID-19 response activities including surveillance, treatment and infection prevention and community engagement in southern African countries.”

The global health agency urged countries to take key steps to enhance efforts to track the Omicron variant, including ensuring their PCR testing equipment can detect it, increasing their sampling and sequencing of COVID-19 test samples by at least double to 150 samples a week from the current average of 75, and review past sequencing samples for potential signs of Omicron.

In September 2020, WHO and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention launched a network of 12 laboratories to reinforce genome sequencing of the virus. Genomic surveillance has advanced significantly since the start of 2021, with the continent recording a five-fold increase in the number of genomes sequenced.

Travel restrictions

PREMIUM TIMES reported how countries moved to restrict travels from southern African countries following the emergence of the new variant.

This newspaper also reported that the Africa CDC frowned at the restrictions. It noted that over the duration of the pandemic, it has observed that imposing bans on travellers from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded a meaningful outcome.

 The new variant: B.1.1.529

On November 25, 2021, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in South Africa announced the detection of a new variant of the SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, following genomic sequencing. This variant is currently labelled as lineage B.1.1.529.

The emergence of this new variant coincided with a sudden increase in cases in the Gauteng province of South Africa and was, accordingly, closely monitored by the health authorities in the country.

It was detected in 77 samples collected between November 12 and 20 from Gauteng Province, four samples from Botswana and one sample in Hong Kong.

The B.1.1.529 variant, later named Omicron by the WHO, displays multiple mutations across the virus genome, which encodes the spike protein responsible for virus entry into host cells.

Some of the mutations have been detected in previous variants, such as Alpha and Delta, and have been associated with increased transmissibility and immune evasion.

Many of the other identified mutations are not yet well characterised and have not been identified in other currently circulating variants.

More investigations are underway to determine the possible impact of these mutations on the capacity of the virus to transmit more efficiently, to impact vaccine effectiveness and evade immune response, and/or to cause more severe or milder disease.

 Concerns in UK, EU countries

 And following the discovery of  two cases of the super-mutant Omicron Coronavirus variant in the UK, European countries have been put on red alert with the detection of the new variant in Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong, The Netherlands, Czech Republic, and Israel, sparking global concern and a rush to ban travel.

A report Sunday by the World Health Organisation (WHO), Omicron, the new potentially more contagious variant of the coronavirus has been reported in more European countries after the UK, just days after being identified in South Africa.

Many countries have already imposed travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa amid fears that Omicron variant has the potential to be more resistant to the protection offered by available vaccines.

But experts say such restrictions may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating globally

Countries are now on high alert even as the coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of more than five million people around the world.

In Czech Republic, the spokesperson of a regional hospital in the northern Czech city of Liberec confirmed the new Omicron strain in a woman.

“My colleagues from the department of genetics and molecular diagnostics confirmed the strain with 90-per cent probability after a sequence analysis.”

Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis has said the woman visited Namibia and flew back to the Czech Republic via South Africa and Dubai.

“The woman was vaccinated and had mild symptoms of the disease,” Babis added.