The emergence of the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant which has resulted in renewed lockdowns and travel bans around the world, which have been criticised by the WHO. In contrast, South Africa will stick to an adjusted Level 1 lockdown for the time being, though pushing for mandatory vaccinations. Business and civil society groups had warned that increasing restrictions would have provoked backlash as recent election campaign events had effectively ignored them.
Many nations around the world have reacted quickly to the new variant, which has a large number of mutations compared to the Delta variant. The UK’s decision to suspend flights from South Africa as well as nine other African countries has provoked criticism from a number of quarters, including President Cyril Ramaphosa. The sudden move has caught many travellers by surprise, including a Welsh rugby team which had two members test positive, one of which was for Omicron. They will have to self-isolate before they are able to return, depending on flight availability.
Japan and Israel have taken the more extreme steps of closing their borders to foreigners. The first cases of Omicron that were recorded in Botswana were revealed to be in visiting diplomats, although which country they came from has not been revealed.
The World Health Organization criticised the imposition of travel restrictions, acknowledging that although they may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID, they still place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. It pointed out that if restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, under international law, the International Health Regulations. It notes South Africa followed International Health Regulations, and informed WHO as soon as its national laboratory identified the Omicron variant.
“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,” 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.”
Although a full picture of the new variant’s severity is still two or three weeks away, Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association, told the AFP she had recently seen around 30 patients at her Pretoria practice who tested positive for COVID but had unfamiliar symptoms.
“What brought them to the surgery was this extreme tiredness,” she said, something she said was unusual for younger patients. Most were men under 40, and just under half were vaccinated. Other symptoms included mild muscle aches, a “scratchy throat” and dry cough, she said. Just a few had a slightly high temperature. These very mild symptoms stand in contrast to other variants, which typically result in more severe symptoms.