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Nations closing borders over variant riles Africa

by Compiled Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | November 28, 2021 at 3:21 a.m.
A medical worker conducts a coronavirus test Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in Johannesburg, South Africa, where cases of the new omicron variant have begun surging. (AP/Jerome Delay)

Nations in southern Africa protested bitterly Saturday as more of the world's wealthiest countries cut them off from travel, renewing a debate over border closures from the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic and compounding the problems facing poorly vaccinated countries.

A new coronavirus variant called omicron, first detected in Botswana, put governments on edge after South Africa announced a surge of cases last week, plunging countries into the most uncertain moment of the pandemic since the highly contagious delta variant took hold this spring.

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As in the early days of the delta variant, political alarm spread quickly across the world, with officials trading blame over how the failures of the global vaccination effort were allowing the virus to mutate, even as researchers warned that the true threat of the new variant was not yet clear.

Omicron was detected Saturday in patients in Britain, Germany and Italy. Scientists estimate the number of cases to be in the thousands in southern Africa, with tens or hundreds more globally.

One nation after another have closed their doors to southern Africa even as they spurn public health measures that scientists say are far more urgent to address the new variant.

Australia, Thailand and Sri Lanka were among the latest countries Saturday to join the United States, Britain and the European Union in banning travelers from South Africa and nearby countries.

Israel announced the world's strictest ban to date, sealing its borders to all foreigners for 14 days after one case was confirmed in that country.

"The key here is caution and minimal risks until we know more," Prime Minister Naftali Bennet of Israel said at a news conference just after midnight Saturday.

Health officials in the Netherlands announced that 61 passengers on two flights from South Africa had tested positive for the virus, the latest indication of how difficult it might be to stop the variant from crossing borders.

The cascade of travel closures triggered resentment among Africans who believe the continent is yet again bearing the brunt of panicked policies from Western countries, which have failed to deliver vaccines and the resources needed to administer them.

Richer countries, having already hoarded vaccines for much of 2021, were now penalizing parts of the world that they have starved of shots in the first place, scientists said.

"Told you so," said Francois Venter, a researcher at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, referring to warnings from African researchers that delaying vaccinations there risked the emergence of new variants. "It feels like these rich countries have learned absolutely nothing in terms of support."

The anger was most visceral in South Africa, where business leaders predicted a dire economic toll, especially on tourism.

In the arrivals halls of Johannesburg's OR Tambo International Airport, Ronald Masiwa, a tour operator, watched with dread as the information board flipped to red, displaying cancellation notices. Three clients had already canceled trips overnight, and he feared that many more would follow.

Some health officials hope the travel bans will buy some time to figure out how to deal with the new variant. But just as border closures a year ago did little to stop the spread of an earlier coronavirus variant from Britain, scientists say, the latest travel shutdowns have likely come too late.

"You close down the boundary with Africa, then you close the boundary with Belgium, then you close the boundary with somewhere else," said Alessandro Vespignani, a professor at Northeastern University in Boston who has studied travel restrictions from early 2020 and advised government agencies in recent days on responses to the latest variant. "But every time you close it, it's a little late."

It remains unclear whether the omicron variant will transmit as easily as global health officials fear. The variant may simply have been in the right place during a surge of new infections in South Africa, making it appear more contagious than it really is.

But scientists say the border closures will wreak havoc in African countries that were counting on reopening. In South Africa, December is traditionally the high season for tourism, one of the country's biggest industries, and operators had been banking on a surge in visitors from Britain, which had removed South Africa from its "red list" only last month.

"This is devastating," said David Frost, CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association. "Many companies have been hanging on by their fingernails, and this is going to wipe them out. It's going to be dire for conservation, and it's going to be dire for people in rural areas where tourism is the only economic generator."

South Africa's number of daily infections -- 2,828 on Friday -- was a small fraction of case counts in countries with similarly sized populations, like Germany, Britain and the United States. For Frost, the hurried measures are the mark of a blatant double standard.


Worried scientists in South Africa are scrambling to combat the lightning spread across the country of the new and highly transmissible omicron covid-19 variant.

"It's a huge concern. We all are terribly concerned about this virus," professor Willem Hanekom, director of the Africa Health Research Institute, told The Associated Press.

Just over 10% of people in Africa have received one dose of a vaccine, compared with 64% in North America and 62% in Europe.

"We're seeing a marked change in the demographic profile of patients with covid-19," Rudo Mathivha, head of the intensive care unit at Soweto's Baragwanath Hospital, said at an online news briefing.

"Young people, in their 20s to just over their late 30s, are coming in with moderate to severe disease, some needing intensive care. About 65% are not vaccinated, and most of the rest are only half-vaccinated," said Mathivha. "I'm worried that as the numbers go up, the public health care facilities will become overwhelmed."

What looked like a cluster infection among some university students in Pretoria ballooned into hundreds of new cases and then thousands, first in the capital city and then to nearby Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city.

"We know we have a new variant," said Mathivha. "The worst case scenario is that it hits us like delta ... we need to have critical care beds ready."

For the countries imposing travel bans, scientists say, far more consequential than delaying the arrival of new omicron cases is the question of what they will do with whatever time they have bought themselves to respond to it.

Scientists say those countries should ramp up testing and vaccinations, and help infected people isolate, especially given the difficulties they were already having containing the delta variant. Scientists pleaded with countries to match those efforts globally, including with aid to southern Africa for their health systems, and vaccination and variant-tracking efforts.

"If all we do is a travel ban, and we don't increase testing at airports or provide resources for people to isolate if they do test positive so they can justify missing work -- all of that would have to be happening to reduce community transmission," said Joseph Fauver, an assistant professor studying genomic surveillance at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

The new variant has already shown signs of spreading locally beyond southern Africa. A patient in Belgium, for instance, had no connections with southern Africa, having traveled recently to Egypt, officials said.

"One of the key factors to emergence of variants may well be low vaccination rates in parts of the world, and the WHO warning that none of us is safe until all of us are safe and should be heeded," said Peter Openshaw, a professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London.

The variant's swift spread among young people in South Africa has alarmed health professionals even though there was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease.

Several scientists said they suspected that the variant had been spreading undetected in countries with lackluster sequencing efforts before it surfaced in Botswana and South Africa, giving it more time to scatter globally.

Nevertheless, European nations did not find the variant until after South Africa alerted them to it, demonstrating the gaps in their own surveillance efforts.

The variant had plenty of opportunities to spread: In November, there were 334 flights scheduled out of southern Africa into Europe, with a capacity of nearly 100,000 seats. And three dozen flights were scheduled from Johannesburg into the United States this month.

Given the uneven global sequencing efforts, Jennifer Nuzzo, a public health researcher at Johns Hopkins University, said it was difficult to target individual countries for border closures. She warned that travel bans create a false sense of security, giving cover to elected leaders who want to avoid more difficult choices.

"The notion of having a global map of where the variants are and aren't is just fantasy," she said. "I don't think the travel bans really have much of an impact, other than answering the political pressures that inevitably arise when a new variant emerges."

Information for this article was contributed by Benjamin Mueller and Declan Walsh of The New York Times; and by Andrew Meldrum and Mogomotsi Magome of The Associated Press.

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