As a growing number of countries impose flight bans on Southern African nations due to concerns over the new Omicron variant, World Health Organisation (WHO) urges countries to follow science and the International Health Organisation Health Regulations (2015). Latest travel bans meet incomprehension in Africa.

South Africa President Cyril Ramaphosa has blasted “unjustified” travel bans imposed by many countries following the emergence of the Omicron variant. It was first detected in Botswana on November 11 and reported to the World Health Organization by South Africa on November 24 after it began spreading rapidly in Gauteng province, a predominantly urban area containing the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic,” Ramaphosa said in a live TV speech on November 28. He added that “the prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant.”

IATA supports WHO’s position

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said it stands with the position of WHO on the virus, just as the clearinghouse for over 290 international airlines and African nations in calling for borders to remain open. IATA in a Tweet stated that governments need to follow global public health experts, as millions of lives and livelihoods depend on it.

Travel restrictions may play a role in reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. This week, nations will be joining a special session of the World Health Assembly organized by WHO to discuss how to collectively prepare and respond better to pandemics, building on their commitments to the International Health Regulations.

How South Africa alerted the world

A statement from the regional office of WHO made available to AirInsight noted that South Africa followed International Health Regulations and as soon as its national laboratory identified the Omicron variant informed WHO of this on November 24.

“The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant are 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”, said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa.

“On the eve of a special session on pandemic preparedness, I urge all countries to respect their legal obligations and implement scientifically based public health actions. 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”.

“We only get better if we work together”

Moeti further stated that while investigations continue into the Omicron variant, WHO recommends countries to take a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures that can limit its possible spread, stressing that flight bans have been imposed on Southern African countries, but so far, only two have detected the new variant. Meanwhile, countries in the other regions have reported cases of Omicron.

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

The WHO Regional Director further disclosed that WHO is scaling up support to genomic sequencing in Africa, adding that sequencing laboratories should have access to adequate human resources and testing reagents to work at full capacity.

WHO said it is ready to support the additional human resources needs as well as mobilize funds and technical expertise to reinforce COVID-19 response activities including surveillance, treatment, and infection prevention and community engagement in Southern African countries.

Steps to track down Omicron

In addition, WHO is reaching out to all countries in the region to ensure they receive the necessary resources to detect and prepare for potential cases of Omicron.

WHO, according to Dr. Moeti, is urging 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 network 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.

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