South Africa health minister says travel bans are ‘unjustified,’ as world reacts to new Covid variant


Health Deputy Minister Dr Joe Phaahla, September 02, 2020 in Springs, South Africa.
OJ Koloti | Gallo Images | 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 is “unjustified.”

“The kind of knee-jerk reaction, it really doesn’t make sense,” Phaahla said at a media briefing, adding that travel bans violate the norms and standards of the World Health Organization. 

He slammed other nations for “wanting to put blame” and ascribing the variant to South Africa rather than working collaboratively to address the situation as guided by the WHO. 

“Covid-19 is a global health emergency. We must 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, to share health info not just of benefit to South Africans and citizens of the world.”

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 is genetic composition 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 found in Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium.

Earlier Friday, the WHO urged countries not to hastily impose travel bans linked to the new variant of the virus, saying they should take a “risk-based and scientific approach,” Reuters reported. 

However, several European and Asian nations have already reacted by imposing temporary travel bans on southern Africa. 

On Friday, a committee of health experts from all 27 EU states “agreed on the need to activate the emergency break & impose temporary restriction on all travel into EU from southern Africa,” the Slovenian presidency of the EU said on Twitter.

The United Kingdom also announced Thursday it would temporarily suspend flights from six African countries, including South Africa, starting midday Friday. The decision was made without prior discussion with South Africa, Phaahla said. 

Deputy Health Minister Sibongiseni Dhlomo said at the media breifing he believes indications are that the U.S. will divert from other nations and not impose a travel ban.

Earlier Friday, White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci told CNN’s “New Day” the U.S. will speak with scientists from South Africa to “get the facts” on the new variant. Fauci said the U.S. is in “very active communication” with South African scientists to get the molecular makeup of the variant.

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