As omicron variant circles the globe, African nations face blame and bans
By Benjamin Mueller and Declan Walsh
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 past spring.
As in the early days of delta, 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.
Bearing a worrying number of mutations that researchers fear could make it spread easily, omicron was spotted Saturday in patients in Britain, Germany and Italy, leaving in its wake what scientists estimated to be thousands of cases in southern Africa and tens or hundreds more globally. One nation after another shut its doors to southern Africa even as they spurned public health measures that scientists said were far more urgently needed to take on 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 the 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 local time Sunday.
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 a wave of resentment among Africans who believed that the continent was yet again bearing the brunt of panicked policies from Western countries, which had 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 had 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 sense of outrage 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 said that the travel bans may 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 said, the latest travel shutdowns had 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 said the border closures would 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 and Britain, not to mention the United States. For Frost, the hurried measures were the mark of a blatant double standard.
Just over 10% of people in Africa have received one dose of a vaccine, compared with 64% in North America and 62% in Europe.
For the countries imposing travel bans, scientists said, far more consequential than delaying the arrival of new omicron cases was the question of what they would do with whatever time they had bought themselves to respond.
At home, scientists said, 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 latest 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.
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 that it was difficult to target individual countries for border closures. She warned that travel bans created a false sense of security, giving cover to elected leaders who wanted 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.”