South Africa scientists in race to contain Omicron Covid-19 variant
South Africa scientists battle to contain Omicron Covid-19 variant

By OBINNA EZUGWU

The detection, fortnight ago, of a new Covid-19 variant, Omicron, by South African scientists immediately took a toll on markets across the globe – in the immediate aftermath, shares tumbled on Wall Street as they reopened after Thanksgiving, while European stocks saw their biggest sell-off in 17 months and oil prices plunged by $10 per barrel as fears over the new variant sent investors scurrying to safe-haven assets – and once again jolted governments into imposing new restrictions.

Oil price struggle has persisted since its detection, dropping below $70 per barrel last week amid travel restrictions, before rallying back up. But global stock market seem to have adjusted to its impact.

However, the Omicron variant has dominated the headlines for a different reason: the hasty slapping of travel bans on South Africa and other African countries in the immediate aftermath of the news of its detection, by the United Kingdom, U.S. Canada and a host of other western countries, has triggered continental fury, and allegations of possible racism, even as many have accused the concerned countries of having an ever present urge to treat Africa as an irrelevant and dispensable stakeholders in global affairs.

“The U.K government pressed the panic button with the decision it took,” said Prof. Onyi Nwagbara, Professor of Environmental Toxicology/Chemistry and Microbiology. “What South Africa did was commendable. U.K imposition of blanket ban is very unfair. What is needed is for everyone to work together to fight the virus.”

The knee-jerk response followed news that the variant had an unusually high number of mutations, which scientists feared could make it more transmissible and result in immune evasion. It would recalled that opaque and secretive way China handle th Covid19 outbreak led to its spread across the world.

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Cyril Ramaphosa, South African president

Till date more than 30 countries have imposed travel bans mostly on African countries – with Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe, Nigeria and Angola, among others featuring on most ban lists – in the wake of the detection of the new variant, even as its true origins are yet to be ascertained and scientists are still struggling to study its unique characteristics.

For many, it’s an indication of how the world would have reacted to Covid-19 if it had originated from Africa.

“The great thing about Omicron is: It reveals how the West would have treated Africa, if Covid-19 originated here,” said C. Chukudebelu @cchukudebelu, alias Onye Nkuzi, global geopolitics analyst.

“It is another reminder that power, in all its dimensions matters. Yes, Covid-19 originated in China, but China is powerful, so they have to tread carefully.”

The variant was officially detected fortnight ago in Botswana and South Africa, and since then, it’s been found in countries across the globe from Scotland to Canada, Netherlands, Portugal, Brazil, among others.

It’s still unclear where the strain originated, and much is still unknown about its severity and transmissibility. But new data from the Netherlands showed Tuesday that the strain was present in Europe before the first cases were reported in South Africa. Regardless, Africa has continued to bear the brunt.

As at Sunday when only South Africa and Botswana were the only countries with reported cases, many countries had imposed blanket bans on virtually the entire Southern Africa sub-region, an anomaly highlighted by World Health Organization, which noted in a statement that though only Botswana and South Africa had reported cases of the omicron, other countries on the continent were being slammed with bans, while such other countries as the U.K., Canada and Germany with reported cases did not appear to be facing such targeted travel bans.

Indeed, UK government last week, joined Nigeria on its travel ban list, becoming the third country to impose a travel ban on Nigeria after Canada and Singapore, a development that triggered flurry of criticism from Nigerians, some of whom blamed it on racism. But others said its simply economic, and that Africa is being treated shabbily by the rest of the world because it lacks economic power.

“It’s not racism, it economics. You have Omicron virus? but have high purchasing power, you can fly,” said financial expert, Kalu Aja, @FinPlanKaluAja1. “Apartheid was not just about race, it was about getting cheap labour to work in deep gold mines.

“Once Asian economies improved, Asians were called “Coloured” not blacks in SA. If Omicron was sequenced in Massachusetts or Guangzhou, would Europe have banned them?

“No. Why? Because a ban would harm trade, and create unemployment in Europe. Banning Africans from Africa has little economic consequence. If it’s health, why is only Africa banned?”

It’s same argument made by Akinwumi A. Adesina, @akin_adesina, president of the African Development Bank.

“Now that omicron has been found in many non-African and developed countries, why are travels from those countries not banned?” Adesina said.

“Why single out African countries? Singling out African countries is very unfair, non-scientific and discriminatory. Lift bans on African countries!”

WHO officials had called on countries to show unity in this time of crisis and warned that bans could be divisive, with the agency’s Director-General Tedros Ghebreyesus describing the travel bans as travel apartheid, but the body’s appeal has failed to discourage further ban imposition.

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Dr. Tedros, WHO DG

“With the omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity,” said Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, WHO regional director for Africa. “COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions.”

The advent of Covid had presented a peculiar challenge for Africa. Poor and unable to keep up with vaccine acquisition and administration, the continent is lagging behind, as advanced nations mostly concern themselves with vaccination of their local populations.

Good a thing the virus hasn’t had devastating impact on healthcare, the like of which was witnessed in Europe and America. But the economic impact has been more severe, and analysts say the new wave of travel restrictions will compound the continent’s economic problems, even as concerns remain over lack of vaccination.

As at the end of October, Africa had only fully vaccinated 77 million people, just six percent of its population, according to WHO figures. In comparison, over 70 percent of high-income countries had vaccinated more than 40 percent of their people. But vaccine resistance is also a factor, especially in Nigeria where conspiracy theories about how vaccines are evil remain prevalent.

Hours after Joe Phaahla, the health minister, announced that South Africa had identified the new variant, Britain shut its airports to flights from South Africa and several other Southern African countries, including those with no record of the new strain. America, the European Union, China – from where Covid-19 originated in late 2019 – Japan, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Cambodia, France, Indonesia, Italy, Kuwait, Malaysia, Poland, Netherlands, among others followed suit.

As at last week, 30 countries, including a handful in Africa, had slammed travel bans on countries in Southern Africa and beyond, with Nigeria also entering the ban list of a number of countries.

“It was inevitable,” Dr. Ayoade Alakija, co-chair, African Union Vaccine Alliance told CNN last week. “And let me say that had the first case of Covid-19 originated from Africa, it is now clear that the world would have locked us away and thrown away the key.

“There would have been no urgency to develop vaccines because we would have been expendables. Africa would have become known as the continent of Covid.”

The contradictions in some instances are stark. For instance, while the Omicron has been reported in at least 20 countries, including Australia, Austria, Belgium, Botswana, Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Portugal, Reunion, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, U.K, among others, Canada chose to slam travel ban only on Botswana, Egypt, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa and Zimbabwe, all in Africa, in a move being widely interpreted as unfair targeting of the continent.

“None of these decisions are guided by ‘the science,’ and that’s precisely the point,” said social media commentator, Chris O. Ògúnmọ́dẹdé, @Illustrious_Cee. “These governments have found the pretext for decisions they always wanted to make anyway.”

The bans continue to fray nerves in Africa. And the continent’s leaders are pushing back.

“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant,” South Africa president Cyril Ramaphosa said in a speech on Sunday last week.

“The only thing the prohibition on travel will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries and undermine their ability to respond to and also to recover from the pandemic.”

Other African leaders have rallied behind South Africa, even as opinion leaders appear unanimous in condemning what they view as unfair targeting of the continent by more advanced economies.

“Canada has now imposed travel bans on a total of 10 countries. All 10 countries are African,” said Geoffrey York, @geoffreyyork, Africa correspondent for The Globe and Mail. “There are 15 countries outside Africa that have reported a total of 68 cases of the new Omicron variant. None of these 15 countries have been subjected to travel restrictions by Canada.”

Ramaphosa maintained that his country is being unfairly targeted while on official visit to Nigeria on Wednesday, insisting that the travel ban by some European countries was unfair, unscientific and discriminatory.

Earlier on Saturday, the country’s foreign affairs ministry had complained in a statement that it is being “punished” for detecting a new variant, arguing that the decision by a number of countries around the world to ban flights from southern Africa following the discovery of the variant “is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.”

Other African leaders have shared the same position. President of Malawi and chairman of the Southern African Development Community member states, Lazarus Chakwera, said in a Facebook post on Sunday that travel bans on southern African nations were “uncalled for,” noting that “Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia.”

Nigeria’s Minister of Health, Osagie Ehanire also noted that the move by Western countries to ban or try to isolate South Africa was discriminatory, emphasising in a chat with ThisDay, that the variant detected in South Africa and also in Botswana and other countries had similarly been detected in Belgium, Italy, Germany and other countries.

“So, the federal government condemned the rush to ban or isolate South Africa by European countries, without isolating Belgium, Italy and other European countries that have more direct flights into the United States of America and among themselves,” he said.

Osagie Ehanire, Health Minister
Ehanire

The minister argued that the position of the Western countries on the virus was not backed by science, saying so far, even if it is a mutation, the new COVID-19 variant has not caused any new deaths or proved to be worse than the Delta variant.

“Therefore, the world should wait for that time, than to be enmeshed in heavy discrimination against South Africa. Why would they isolate South Africa? The federal government would open its doors to Ramaphosa and others who are coming from South Africa until science says otherwise. People should be vigilant.”

Like the governments of South Africa, Malawi, Nigeria, WHO called on countries that imposed the bans to take “a risk-based and scientific approach” when putting measures in place to limit the spread of COVID. That includes using “the tools we already have to prevent transmission and save lives from delta,” said WHO DG, Ghebreyesus in his opening remarks at the WHO General Assembly on Tuesday: “enhancing surveillance, testing, sequencing and reporting. If we do that, we will also prevent transmission and save lives from.”

The African leaders would feel a sense of vindication following the revelation last week by Dutch authorities that the Omicron variant was present in the country before South Africa officially reported its first cases on November 25.

Dutch health officials disclosed on Tuesday that Omicron was present in the Netherlands a week before two flights arrived from South Africa carrying the virus. At least one of the cases is thought to have been contracted in the Netherlands, RIVM virologist Chantal Reusken told national broadcaster NOS.

Nine cases of Omicron were linked to a private event on November 20 in Scotland, days before South Africa announced the existence of the variant. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told Scottish Parliament Tuesday that none of the individuals had a recent travel history or known links to others who had traveled from southern Africa.

“We in South Africa and Africa in general are unhappy with the way the world has responded to Omicron detection,” said Dr. Ramneek Ahluwalia, South African Global Health Specialist. “This is not an African variant. It could have been detected in any other continent. It is absolutely unfair for the world to blame South Africa or Africa for Omicron. The travel bans are very absurd.

“When the Delta variant was detected in India and eventually became the dominant variant globally, the world accepted it and developed measures to respond to it. It is unacceptable to ban Africans with the mindset that the variant originated from Africa, which is not true.”

The new revelation of existence of the mutation in Europe before its detection in South Africa indeed makes a mockery of the travel bans, but the sense of vindication in the outrage has been blighted by the decision of a number of African countries, including Angola, Egypt, Mauritius, Morocco and Rwanda to join ranks with Western and Asian countries to impose travel restrictions on South Africa and other nations on the continent.

While Morocco suspended all incoming flights for two weeks, Angola announced it will close its borders with countries in southern Africa, including Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe until January 5.

Egypt also halted direct flights from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, while Rwanda suspended all direct flights to and from southern Africa, a development some say, has defeated the push for lifting of bans.

“Rwanda has suspended flights between herself and Southern Africa,” observed Hopewell Chin’ono, @daddyhope. “Botswana withholds the nationality of the 4 diplomats who sparked the travel bans. It defeats the whole push to have the West remove its travel bans. Africa doesn’t speak with one voice.”
Growing Anxiety

Although early signs indicate that Omicron has only mild symptoms, anxiety has continued to mount over the virus, with scientists noting that it could take weeks to determine whether, and to what extent it is vaccine-resistant, and if the symptoms could become severe.

“The early signs, though from young people, shows that the variant has mild symptoms, though very highly transmissible,” said Dr. Ahluwalia in an interview with Arise TV on Friday. “It is 30 times more transmissible than the Delta variant, but the symptoms are mild.

“What the variant is indicating so far is that Coronavirus is reducing its virulent. Usually viruses come being very virulent, but gradually it begins to lose its virulence, and that a positive we could be looking at with Omicron.”

Moderna, U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and the backers of Russian vaccine Sputnik V are reportedly already working on an Omicron-specific vaccine.

On the treatment front, meanwhile, a panel of US health experts voted Tuesday to endorse Merck’s Covid pill for high-risk adult patients, which is already authorised in Britain.

“The virus is here to stay,” Nwagbara said. “We will continue to see mutations. What we don’t know is whether or not the mutations would be worse.”

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