SA punished for ‘wrong reasons’ over Covid variant

South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the travel bans imposed on the country, particularly by countries in the European Union, following the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant in the country are “unjustified.”

The travel bans “are completely against the norms and standards” advised on by the World Health Organisation, he said on an online press conference on Friday. “That kind of action is knee-jerk and panic…It is a risk to disclose what you have found,” he said, adding that his country is being “scapegoated.”

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South Africa, which before the pandemic, relied on tourism for 7% of gross domestic product and 1.5 million jobs, will be hard bit by the ban which comes at the start of the southern hemisphere summer holiday season.

The UK and a number of other countries have also halted flights to and from southern Africa. The UK, the biggest source of foreign tourists for South Africa, didn’t consult the country’s government before imposing a ban.

“This makes it less likely for countries with scientific capabilities to report when they find something,” said Nicholas Crisp, acting director general in South Africa’s Department of Health and the head of the country’s vaccination program.

He said the first he heard of the ban was a Whatsapp message from an official at the UK high commission, who apologised. He didn’t identify the official.

While the variant, known as B.1.1.529, was identified by South African scientists it has since been identified in Belgium in a traveler who arrived from Egypt, according the post of a government adviser on Twitter. Phaahla repeated the information at the press conference.

A case was also found in Israel and Botswana and Hong Kong have also reported finding cases. The Hong Kong case was someone who had traveled from South Africa while Botswana said the cases were in travelers, without saying where they came from.

While there have been breakthrough infections in people who have already been vaccinated there is no indication so far that they are severely affected, said Ian Sanne, a member of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Council on Covid-19, on the press conference

South Africa’s daily coronavirus infection number rose to 2 828 on Friday from 2 465 the day earlier, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. The proportion of positive tests rose to 9.2% from 6.5%.

Scientists around the world expressed the same concern that South African researchers have about the “constellation” of mutations found on the variant, Tulio de Oliveira, the head of gene sequencing institutions in South Africa, said on the press conference call. The World Health Organisation has termed the mutation a Variant of Concern and named it Omicron.

“We have been punished for the wrong reasons,” Sanne said.

© 2021 Bloomberg