South African Omicron Discoverer Laments ‘Knee-Jerk’ Biden-Style Travel Bans

United Airlines planes sit parked on a runway at Denver International Airport as the coronavirus pandemic slows air travel on April 22, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. Compared to the same time last year, Denver International Airport is operating 1,000 fewer flights daily. (Photo by Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images)
Michael Ciaglo/Getty Images

South African Dr. Angelique Coetzee — who discovered a new variant of “Covid-19,” or the Chinese coronavirus, called Omicron last month in her patients — told the Africa News Agency (ANA) on Tuesday she considered the worldwide bans on travel out of southern Africa following Omicron’s emergence “knee-jerk” and short-sighted, given the lack of information about the strain.

“The world, especially England, had a knee-jerk reaction. They stopped everything even after our scientists told them that not enough is known about the variant, whether it is more transmissible or more severe,” Dr. Coetzee, the chairwoman of the South African Medical Association (SAMA), told the ANA on December 7.

Several nations across the globe announced varying degrees of travel restrictions on flights entering their borders from southern Africa in late November after the first cases of Omicron were detected in the region earlier that same month.

Britain, the European Union (E.U.), Japan, and the United States, are among dozens of countries and regional blocs worldwide that have imposed travel bans on flights from countries where Omicron has been detected since mid-November. Those nations include Botswana, South Africa, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi, Zambia, and Angola.

Other states that have restricted travel from southern Africa due to Omicron include Angola, Rwanda, Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Russia, China, India, Nepal, Canada, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia, Cambodia, Fiji, and the Maldives.

The travel bans came largely in response to a World Health Organization (W.H.O.) announcement designating Omicron a “variant of concern” on November 26.

“This decision was based on the evidence … that Omicron has several mutations that may have an impact on how it behaves, for example, on how easily it spreads or the severity of illness it causes,” the W.H.O. wrote in a November 28 press release.

The U.N.’s public health body said at the time more testing would be necessary to understand if Omicron is more transmissible or causes more severe illness than existing variants of “Covid-19,” which is the name of the disease caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. “Covid-19” is also known as the Chinese coronavirus.

Dr. Coetzee told CNN’s New Day program on November 30 the Omicron patients she had treated or observed in South Africa so far had presented symptoms of mild illness.

“The [Omicron] patients that has been vaccinated so far have no complication [sic],” she revealed.

“I have seen vaccinated people and not really very sick. That might change going forward, as we say, this is early days. And this is maybe what makes us hopeful,” the SAMA chair added.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (N.I.A.I.D.), told Agence France-Press (AFP) on December 7 the severity of illness caused by Omicron “almost certainly is not more severe than Delta.”

He referred to the Delta variant of “Covid-19,” which has been the dominant strain of the disease worldwide over the past several months. The Delta variant is considered highly transmissible and is capable of causing “breakthrough infections,” meaning it may infect people after they have been fully vaccinated against coronavirus.

Dr. Fauci told AFP on Tuesday Omicron is similar to Delta in that it is also “clearly highly transmissible.” He added Omicron “may be very likely more so than Delta.”

“There is some suggestion that it might even be less severe, because when you look at some of the cohorts that are being followed in South Africa, the ratio between the number of infections and the number of hospitalizations seems to be less than with Delta,” the N.I.A.I.D. director said of Omicron.

Fauci revealed lab experiments are underway to test “the potency of antibodies from current vaccines against Omicron.” He said the test results should be available in the “next few days to a week.”

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