JOHANNESBURG: The travel bans imposed on South Africa by a growing number of countries due to the new potentially highly-transmissible variant of COVID-19 is "draconian" and "misdirected", Health Minister Joe Phaahla has said.
The new COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529, first detected in South Africa this week, was on Friday, November 26, 2021, designated as a "Variant of Concern" by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which named it "Omicron".
"We feel that it's a wrong approach. It is misdirected and it goes against the norms as advised by the WHO. We just feel that some of the leaderships of (these) countries are finding scapegoats to deal with what is a worldwide problem," Phaahla said at a news briefing late Friday evening.
A "variant of concern" is the WHO's top category of worrying COVID-19 variants.
It was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on November 24, and has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel.
"It is ironic that we are currently talking about a situation in South Africa today about small samples, (even though) we are concerned about rising numbers from the low levels of about 300 per day just over 14 days ago; to where we are now approaching 3,000 (cases)," Phaahla said.
"It is a significant rise, but in comparison to some of the countries which are now reacting in this very draconian manner, we are talking about countries that have an infection rate of upwards of 40,000 new infections per day," he said contrasting the COVID-19 situation in Europe and his country.
"We don't want to apportion blame, but just in terms of the way the virus moves as people move, it is not inconceivable that it might be possible that this may have even arisen in those countries which have been even more liberal in terms of crowds with no masks at stadiums and so on, the minister said.
Many parts of Europe and the US have opened up stadiums for crowds at sports matches and concerts.
Phaahla said he was aware that the announcement on Thursday by South African scientists about the discovery of the new variant had caused some consternation and uncertainty.
"This is expected in a situation of this nature, where we are dealing with a moving target, but we want to assure South Africans and people elsewhere in the world that we believe that some of the action has actually been unjustified," Phahhla said.
"I'm referring here specifically to the countries in Europe. All that we did together with our scientists who made the discovery of this variant was basically to be in line with the norms and standards as prescribed by the WHO - that as a world community as we deal with this pandemic and any other matter which challenges the world health as a whole, rather than just individual countries we should act with transparency," he said.
The UK announced on Thursday that all flights to and from South Africa and five neighbouring countries would be banned from Friday following an announcement that the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 had been detected in South Africa.
Many other European countries followed suit, most of them indicating that only their own citizens would be allowed back, subject to a quarantine period.
Phaahla said the scientists who are constantly monitoring the mutation of the virus informed the authorities so that the WHO and the health sector all over the world could also stay informed.
"At no stage did (our scientists) say that they have evidence that this virus is more transmissible. They simply said that as has been the case with other mutations, some of them have had the effect of being more transmissible without also necessarily meaning that in terms of its seriousness (it would have) more impact on the severity of illness," he said.
The scientists did emphasise that these are very early stages in terms of the specifics of how this new variant is going to unfold, the minister said.
Phaahla reiterated that there was no evidence that the current vaccines would be ineffective against the new mutation.
"We want to dispel any notion, as has been bandied about by various commentators. At no stage did the scientists who discovered this variant say that (it) would be resistant to the vaccines which are being utilised," he emphasised.
Earlier, South African Medical Research Council CEO Professor Glenda Gray came out in defence of the scientists who had flagged the new variant.
Gray said releasing such information could assist in changing behaviour and result in reducing the spread of the virus.
Meanwhile, a top UK scientist, officially advising the government on COVID-19, on Saturday said vaccines being administered are likely to protect against the Omicron variant.
"This is not a disaster, and the headlines from some of my colleagues saying 'this is horrendous' I think are hugely overstating the situation," Professor Calum Semple told the BBC.
The alarm over the Omicron variant has jeopardised the travel plans of thousands of foreigners in South Africa, especially at a time when Christmas and New Year are around the corner.
So far the coronavirus has claimed 89,771 lives in South Africa, along with 2,952,500 confirmed infections, according to Johns Hopkins University.
The South African government's intensive efforts to increase vaccinations, including setting up sites at religious institutions and making facilities available at weekends, have been thwarted by extensive anti-vaccination campaigns.