Covid-19 Variant Omicron Induces Wave of Travel Restrictions

Sara G. Norris

In the wake of a newly identified Covid-19 “variant of
concern,” a developing list of countries that includes United States, Canada,
United Kingdom, France, Germany, Netherlands, India, Morocco, Seychelles,
Singapore, Australia and Philippines have implemented varying degrees of travel
restrictions on South Africa that also affect a cluster of additional southern African
nations, including Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique
and Malawi. The European Union also said on Friday it would work with member
states to suspend flights to the region. Israel and Japan have implemented temporary
but total travel bans for all foreign nationals, not only those traveling from at-risk nations. 

Going into the Thanksgiving weekend in the United States, infectious
disease experts in South Africa announced they had sequenced a new Covid-19 variant,
B.1.1.529. By Saturday the World Health Organization identified
the strain as a variant of concern due to its multiple mutations from the
original virus structure and what appears to be an aggressive transmission
rate. The WHO named the variant “omicron” from the letter in the Greek alphabet.
Since then, omicron has been identified in Covid-19 patients in the U.K., Belgium,
Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Israel, Hong Kong, Australia and Canada,
even as countries try to seal themselves off from the variant. Additional
countries are sequencing suspected cases.

Much about the omicron variant is
still unknown, including its transmission rate, severity of disease it may
cause and whether current vaccine formulations are effective in preventing
serious infection. Early reports from South African medical experts closest to
the variant indicate the current vaccines may be enough to prevent serious
illness, according to Reuters. Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the South African
doctor who first identified what seemed like unusual
symptoms for Covid-19, told the BBC on Sunday they were “very mild symptoms”
that included being extremely tired and having a scratchy throat and headache,
but did not include the hallmark loss of smell or taste. No deaths have yet been reported from known omicron cases.

Given the small sample size, however, medical experts aren’t
drawing definitive conclusions about illness severity from these initial
reports. In the U.S., chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci met with President
Joe Biden on Sunday and said it would take “approximately two more weeks
to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity and other
characteristics of the variant,” according to a White House release. In
the meantime, he agreed with South African experts that existing vaccines are
likely to provide a degree of protection against severe Covid cases from omicron.

Despite this, the world is not waiting to introduce travel
restrictions. The United States, for one, has barred all foreign nationals
arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini,
Mozambique and Malawi.

Experts have questioned the reasoning behind banning
travel from nations in southern Africa when cases now have been identified in a
multitude of countries, from which international arrival volumes are vastly

The WHO urged countries not to act hastily or deploy
“knee-jerk” travel restrictions before data was available. Moreover, a
recent scientific study
in the journal Science has indicated travel bans have done relatively little to
reduce the spread of Covid-19 globally after the initial stages of the pandemic
in 2020. A study
in the Journal of Emergency Management offered similar conclusions.

African officials throughout the region have railed against
the global move toward travel restrictions.

“This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing
South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new
variants quicker,” the Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation
said in a statement. “Excellent science should be applauded and not

Malawian President Lazarus Chakwerka who is also the chairman
of the 16-member Southern African Development Community posted on his Facebook
“… the unilateral travel bans now imposed on SADC countries by the
UK, EU, US, Australia and others are uncalled for. Covid measures must be based
on science, not Afrophobia.”

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