South Africa says it is being punished for reporting omicron strain

South Africa‘s foreign ministry said on Saturday that it is being punished for reporting the omicron strain, a new variant of the coronavirus that has some countries, including the United States, closing off travel from the country.

The Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation said it agrees with the World Health Organization’s position on the latest travel bans instituted in response to the variant. WHO officials have urged countries to move forward cautiously when it comes to issuing travel bans, noting they could deter countries from reporting future variants.

New variants have been detected in other countries that have had no recent links with Southern Africa, said the foreign ministry, commenting on how the reaction to those countries is “starkly different.”

“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 foreign ministry said. “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished. The global community needs collaboration and partnerships in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

South Africa already has started talking with countries that have imposed travel bans, asking them to reconsider. The foreign ministry said South Africa’s capacity to test and its ramped-up vaccination program should assure other countries that South Africa is doing as well as they are in managing the pandemic. It also noted South Africa follows COVID-19 health protocols on travel and does not permit infected individuals to leave the country.

“Whilst we respect the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, we need to remember that this pandemic requires collaboration and sharing of expertise,” Minister Naledi Pandor said. “Our immediate concern is the damage that these restrictions are causing to families, the travel and tourism industries and business.”

The World Health Organization on Friday formally designated the omicron variant, first detected in South Africa, as one “of concern.”

Several cases of the omicron variant have been identified in Europe, including two in the United Kingdom and one in Belgium, the BBC reported. Meanwhile, both Germany and the Czech Republic have suspected cases. Dutch health authorities said on Saturday they found 61 COVID-19 cases among people who flew from South Africa on Friday and will perform further tests to see if the travelers are infected with the omicron variant, Reuters reported.

The new variant has also been detected in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel, according to the BBC.

Many countries including Canada, Brazil, Australia, the European Union, Iran, Japan, Thailand and the U.S. have placed restrictions on various African countries over the past couple of days to try and contain the variant’s spread, the Associated Press reported.

The Biden administration announced on Friday that it is restricting travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi in response to concerns about the omicron strain. The travel ban will take effect Monday.

No cases of this variant have been identified in the U.S. so far, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Friday.

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