International Desk, Nov 26 (EFE).- The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday identified a variant of Covid-19 detected in South Africa as a Variant of Concern (VOC), a determination that came after the European Union and various individual countries announced restrictions on travel from southern Africa.
The WHO’s Technical Advisory Group convened Friday to evaluate B.1.1.529, reported two days earlier by health officials in South Africa.
“(T)his variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” the WHO said in a statement.
On the recommendation of the advisory group, the statement added, “the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron.”
South African authorities confirmed on Thursday that the apparently more transmissible variant had been discovered Nov. 23 in test samples taken between November 14 and 16 after a spike in cases in Johannesburg and Pretoria.
Early Friday, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands suspended travel from countries in southern Africa, while Germany temporarily banned arrivals from South Africa, except for German citizens.
Later, the governments of the 26-member European Union agreed to suspend flights from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini.
EU nationals traveling from those countries will be allowed to enter the bloc, but must submit to a Covid-19 test and undergo quarantine on their return to Europe.
The United States government, after saying that it would take a wait-and-see approach, reversed course within hours on Friday.
Effective Monday, officials said, entry of travelers from the seven countries on the EU list plus Malawi will be limited to US citizens.
“As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries,” President Joe Biden said. “As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises.”
Canada is excluding all foreign nationals who have traveled in southern Africa during the last 14 days, while Canadian citizens seeking to return from the region must present proof of a negative test before boarding a flight.
South Africa’s health minister blasted the travel restictions as “unjustified.”
“The kind of knee-jerk reaction, it really doesn’t make sense,” Dr. Joe Phaahla told a news conference. “Covid-19 is a global health emergency.”
“We must work together, not punish each other. Witch hunts don’t benefit anyone. South Africa wants to be an honest player in the world, to share health info not just of benefit to South Africans and citizens of the world,” he said.
Phaahla said it was ironic that “some of the countries ? now reacting in this draconian manner” had infection rates of more than 50,000 per day, compared with the just under 3,000 new cases reported Friday in South Africa. EFE