• The New York Times reports that as the Omicron variant spreads, more and more high-income countries – which have not adopted urgently-needed public health measures to stop the pandemic, such as ramping up testing, vaccination and mask mandates – are cutting off travel from southern Africa. Border closures are unlikely to stop Omicron: in the Netherlands, 61 passengers on two flights from South Africa had tested positive for the virus after having crammed into planes and unventilated rooms for about 30 hours.
The travel closures are triggering resentment among Africans, after many of the same Western countries that are banning them failed to deliver coronavirus and the resources needed to administer them. Scientists said that these wealthy countries, which have been hoarding vaccines, are now inflicting punishment likely to have severe economic consequences for nations that never got their share of shots. “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.
Global health officials have warned that travel bans can interrupt the flow of medical supplies and damage national economies, making countries reluctant to report health threats. David Frost, chief executive officer of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, described the ban as “…devastating. 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.”
Scientists suspect that the variant has already been spreading undetected in countries which do not have high-level sequencing capacity, although European nations did not find the variant until after South Africa alerted them to it, demonstrating the gaps in their own surveillance efforts. Source
• South Africa’s Minister of Heath, Joe Phaahla, said the travel bans imposed on it are unjustified, and “…completely against the norms and standards” advised by WHO, adding “It is a risk to disclose what you have found,” because his country is being “scapegoated.” Source
• After Britain’s Health Security Agency announced two cases of the Omicron variant in the country, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said face masks would be required in stores and on public transportation, a measure that his government ended in July. Source
• Omicron cases are being reported in several countries among recent travelers; in Germany, a married couple in returning from South Africa and at least one other person were confirmed to be infected with Omicron; in Italy, it was detected in a traveler returning Mozambique; Belgium reported a case in a traveler returning from outside southern Africa, while health officials in the Czech Republic are looking at a suspected case in a traveler returning from Namibia; Israel has confirmed one case and is testing seven others, and a recent traveler in Tirol, Austria, is suspected to have the Omicron variant. Source
• In Asia, countries that have some of the world’s highest coronavirus vaccination rates have been expanding eligibility for boosters. Singapore, which has fully vaccinated nearly 90 percent of its population, authorized boosters on 14 September, before the UK and the US, and is currently administering boosters to people ages 30 and above (and frontline and healthcare workers ages 18 and above). In Cambodia, Japan and Malaysia, where vaccination rates are around 80 percent, boosters will be given to all adults. In South Korea, which has also vaccinated nearly 80 percent of its population, booster eligibility has been reduced from six months to four months after the second dose and expanded to include people ages 50 and over. Source