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Covid-19 variant omicron leads a wave of travel restrictions

In the wake of a newly identified Covid-19 "variant of concern," a developing list of countries that includes the U.S., Canada, U.K., France, Germany, Netherlands, India, Morocco, Seychelles, Singapore, Australia and Philippines have implemented varying degrees of travel restrictions on countries in southern Africa.

The restrictions affect South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

The European Union said on Friday it would work with member states to suspend flights to the region. Israel and Japan have implemented temporary but total travel bans for all foreign nationals, not only those traveling from at-risk nations.

Going into the Thanksgiving weekend, infectious disease experts in South Africa announced they had sequenced a new Covid-19 variant, B.1.1.529. By Saturday the World Health Organization identified the strain as a variant of concern due to its multiple mutations from the original virus structure and what appears to be an aggressive transmission rate.

The WHO named the variant "omicron" from the letter in the Greek alphabet. Since then, omicron has been identified in Covid-19 patients in the U.K., Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Israel, Hong Kong, Australia and Canada, even as countries try to seal themselves off from the variant. Additional countries are sequencing suspected cases.

Much about the omicron variant is still unknown, including its transmission rate, severity of disease it may cause and whether current vaccine formulations are effective in preventing serious infection. Early reports from South African medical experts closest to the variant indicate the current vaccines may be enough to prevent serious illness, according to Reuters.

Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the South African doctor who first identified what seemed like unusual symptoms for Covid-19, told the BBC on Sunday they were "very mild symptoms" that included being extremely tired and having a scratchy throat and headache, but did not include the hallmark loss of smell or taste. No deaths have yet been reported from known omicron cases.

Given the small sample size, however, medical experts aren't drawing definitive conclusions about illness severity from these initial reports. In the U.S., chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci met with President Joe Biden on Sunday and said it would take "approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity and other characteristics of the variant," according to a White House release.

In the meantime, Fauci agreed with South African experts that existing vaccines are likely to provide a degree of protection against severe Covid cases from omicron.

Despite this, the world is not waiting to introduce travel restrictions. The U.S., for one, has barred all foreign nationals arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Experts have questioned the reasoning behind banning travel from nations in southern Africa when cases now have been identified in a multitude of countries from which international arrival volumes are vastly greater.

The WHO urged countries not to act hastily or deploy "knee-jerk" travel restrictions before data was available. Moreover, a recent scientific study in the journal Science has indicated travel bans have done relatively little to reduce the spread of Covid-19 globally after the initial stages of the pandemic in 2020. A study in the Journal of Emergency Management offered similar conclusions.

African officials throughout the region have railed against the global move toward travel restrictions.

"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 Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation said in a statement. "Excellent science should be applauded and not punished."

Malawian president Lazarus Chakwerka, who is also the chairman of the 16-member Southern African Development Community posted on his Facebook page "… the unilateral travel bans now imposed on SADC countries by the U.K., EU, U.S., Australia and others are uncalled for. Covid measures must be based on science, not Afrophobia."

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