WHO official criticizes 'heavy burden' of travel bans on African countries

A top World Health Organization official criticized travel bans being placed on African countries amid concern over the COVID-19 variant omicron, The Associated Press reported

“Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO's regional director for Africa, said in a statement on Sunday. 

“If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations,” she added. 

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Moeti also praised South Africa for following international health regulations and quickly informing the agency of its initial discovery, according to The AP. 

“The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended,” Moeti said. “WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19.”

The WHO cautioned in an update on Sunday that much remains unknown about the new variant. 

"It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible (e.g., more easily spread from person to person) compared to other variants, including Delta," the WHO said. "The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors."

The organization said fears over the new variant also highlight the need for expanded access to the COVID-19 vaccine around the world, writing "it is vitally important that inequities in access to COVID-19 vaccines are urgently addressed."

Many countries in Africa remain among the least vaccinated in the world, with a majority of people yet to receive a single dose even as developed countries roll out booster shots. 

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South African health officials on Thursday confirmed the discovery of the new variant, formerly called B.1.1529, saying it is “very different” from past mutations from the virus. 

WHO’s advisory group on Friday designated omicron a "variant of concern” due to its large number of mutations and an increased risk of re-infection. 

The new variant has been detected in several countries including Israel, Australia, the Netherlands, and Morocco, the AP reported. 

Starting Monday, The U.S. plans to prohibit travel from eight African countries.