AU demands travel ban over omicron variant quashed

AU demands travel ban over omicron variant quashed
Felix Tshisekedi, African Union Chairperson (photo credit: News24)

The African Union has urged western countries to quash the travel bans slapped on its members as a result of the emergence of the omicron variant, which was discovered in South Africa.

The AU pointed out that the “current evidence, which underscores global spread and community transmission of the Omicron variant, does not support selective travel bans imposed on Southern African countries.”

In a press release seen by The City Review yesterday, the AU argued that the travel ban imposed on the continent could have adverse impacts on the economy, medical supplies, and limited capacity for Southern African researchers and scientists.

“These travel and entry bans, which limit the free movement of people and goods, have an immediate and significant negative impact on the region,” read the statement.

“The African Union calls for the urgent rescinding of selective travel bans imposed on African Union member states. Equitable access to vaccines is key to immunizing populations, controlling transmission of the virus and preventing the emergence of new variants,’’ the body argued. 

The statement indicated that vaccination coverage should be the focus of the continent, other than limiting travel.

It further argued that the negative impacts of the economy could affect people’s lives and livelihoods, and limited access to medical supplies could affect the efforts to lessen the spread of the virus, and the capacity of scientists to access reagents for monitoring the spread of Omicron variant and to investigate and characterize its impact on transmissibility, severity, and evasion from vaccines.

“The African Union emphasises that penalising the Member States for ensuring timely and transparent data dissemination in accordance with international health regulations acts as a disincentive for information sharing in the future, potentially posing a threat to health security on the continent and globally,” the statement continued.

The AU hailed scientists and public health authorities in Botswana and South Africa for the timely detection of Omicron variants and their transparent data sharing to inform the international community in accordance with the International Health Regulations (2005).

The continental body called for extensive investigations to investigate the epidemiological and clinical characteristics of Omicron.

“Although COVID-19 case numbers and test positivity rates have sharply increased in the Gauteng province since Omicron was first reported, early clinical data from infected cases indicate that this has not translated into a significant increase in severe COVID-19 cases or in-hospitals deaths until now,” the statement read partly.

“This could, however, be due to the younger age profile of cases and/or the time lag between the increase in COVID-19 case numbers and the increase in COVID-19 deaths. The African Union stresses that “PHSM interventions to mitigate the risk of infections and control the spread of COVID-19 should be targeted to limit the impact on lives and livelihoods and informed by science and evidence.” 

Travel ban

Since the detection of the new Omicron variant, media reports have shown many countries have restricted permeability to their borders and airspaces.

The bans were first imposed on eight of the southern African countries, including South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho.

The countries that imposed travel bans were the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US), Canada, Germany, France, Japan, Israel, India, Australia, the Netherlands, Philippines, Italy, Malta, Pakistan, Iran, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman.

Israel announced its ban, listing 50 African countries, including South Sudan. Turkey also evacuated its citizens from Cape Town and Johannesburg for their safety and imposed a 14-day quarantine for travellers from South Africa.

Other African countries, like Angola and Morocco, shut their borders as a means of preventing the spread of Omicron.

However, the World Health Organization later said that there was no evidence of the transmissibility and severity of omicron.

Angola has meanwhile decided to close its borders to seven African countries to prevent the spread of the omicron variant.

Sudan has banned entry for travellers from South Africa, while Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, and Rwanda announced that direct flights to South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have been temporarily suspended.

Morocco suspended passenger flights for two weeks to prevent the variant from entering the country. The African Union criticized the ban, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa described the restrictions as “scientifically unjustified.”

 “We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to immediately and urgently reverse their decisions,” he said.

New variant

According to the statement, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) in South Africa on November 25 announced the new variant of SARS-COV-2 said to be the causal virus of COVID-19 as a result of genomic sequencing.

This came after cases of COVID-19 soared in Gauteng province, triggering closer monitoring by the South African Health Authorities. It was similarly detected in Botswana and Hong Kong, China.

On November 26, the World Health Organization (WHO) Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE) designated SARS-2 lineage B.1.529 as a variant of concern named Omicron.

On November 5, there were 635 cases of Omicron detected and reported to GISAID by 37 countries across all continents, including 228 cases from South Africa, and 143 cases that were detected in the United Kingdom.

The report further indicated that Omicron had already spread before its detection in South Africa, dismissing the claim that it could be transmitted through international travel.