Deputy Minister of Health Dr Joe Phaahla on September 02, 2020 in Springs, South Africa.
OJ Koloti | Gallo Pictures | Getty Images
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said Friday that other countries’ decisions to impose travel restrictions amid concerns over the detection of a heavily mutated variant of Covid-19 in his country were “unwarranted”.
“The kind of knee-jerk reaction, it really doesn’t make sense,” Phaahla told a news conference, adding that the travel bans violate World Health Organization norms and standards.
He blamed other nations for “wanting to pass the blame” and blaming the variant on South Africa rather than working collaboratively to resolve the situation in line with WHO guidelines.
“Covid-19 is a global health emergency. We need to work together, not punish each other,” Phaahla said. “Witch hunts don’t benefit anyone. South Africa wants to be an honest player in the world, sharing health information, not just for the benefit of South Africans and global citizens.”
The new variant, known as B.1.1.529, has been detected in small numbers in South Africa. The WHO on Friday assigned the Greek letter Omicron to the variant.
Phaala said preliminary studies suggest the variant may be more transmissible due to its genetic makeup, but noted that vaccines are still effective in preventing severe Covid from the variant.
Reports on Friday morning said cases of the new variant have been discovered in Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium.
Earlier on Friday, the WHO urged countries not to hastily impose travel bans linked to the new variant of the virus, saying they should take a “scientific and risk-based approach”. Reuters reported.
However, several European and Asian countries have already responded by imposing temporary travel bans on southern Africa.
On Friday, a committee of health experts from the 27 EU states “agreed on the need to activate the emergency pause and impose a temporary restriction on all travel to the EU from Southern Africa,” Slovenia’s EU presidency said on Twitter.
The United Kingdom also announced on Thursday that it would temporarily suspend flights from six African countries, including South Africa, from noon on Friday. The decision was taken without prior discussion with South Africa, Phaahla said.
Deputy Health Minister Sibongiseni Dhlomo said at the press conference that he believed the United States would turn away from other countries and not impose a travel ban.
Earlier Friday, White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN’s “New Day” that the United States would speak with scientists in South Africa to “get the facts” on the new variant. Fauci said the United States was in “very active communication” with South African scientists to obtain the molecular composition of the variant.