S. African minister says his country being 'scapegoated' over Covid-19 variant

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) – South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said the travel bans imposed on the country, particularly by those in the European Union (EU), following the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant in the country are unjustified.

The travel bans “are completely against the norms and standards” advised on by the World Health Organisation (WHO), he said on an online press conference on Friday (Nov 26).

“That kind of action is knee-jerk and panic… It is a risk to disclose what you have found,” he said, adding that his country is being “scapegoated”.

South Africa, which before the pandemic, relied on tourism for 7 per cent of gross domestic product and 1.5 million jobs, will be hard bit by the ban which comes at the start of the southern hemisphere summer holiday season.

Britain and a number of other countries have also halted flights to and from southern Africa. Britain, the biggest source of foreign tourists for South Africa, didn’t consult the country’s government before imposing a ban.

“This makes it less likely for countries with scientific capabilities to report when they find something,” said Nicholas Crisp, acting director general in South Africa’s Department of Health and the head of the country’s vaccination programme.

He said the first he heard of the ban was a Whatsapp message from an official at British high commission, who apologised.

He didn’t identify the official. While the Omicron variant, was identified by South African scientists it has since been identified in Belgium in a traveller who arrived from Egypt, according to the post of a government adviser on Twitter.

Phaahla repeated the information at the press conference.

A case was also found in Israel and Botswana and Hong Kong have also reported finding cases.

The Hong Kong case was someone who had travelled from South Africa while Botswana said the cases were travellers, without saying where they came from.

While there have been breakthrough infections in people who have already been vaccinated there is no indication so far that they are severely affected, said Ian Sanne, a member of South Africa’s Ministerial Advisory Council on Covid-19.

South Africa’s daily coronavirus infection number rose to 2,828 on Friday from 2,465 the day earlier, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases.

The proportion of positive tests rose to 9.2 per cent from 6.5 per cent. Scientists around the world expressed the same concern that South African researchers have about the “constellation” of mutations found on the variant, Tulio de Oliveira, the head of gene sequencing institutions in South Africa, said on the press conference call.

The WHO has termed the mutation a variant of concern.

“We have been punished for the wrong reasons,” Sanne said.

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