WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Picture: REUTERS/FABRICE COFFRINI
WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Picture: REUTERS/FABRICE COFFRINI

The World Health Organization (WHO) has lambasted countries across the globe for victimising SA in the wake of it revealing the new Covid-19 Omicron variant.

The variant has been found in 23 countries at the moment, the WHO said, but a backlog of cases worldwide could reveal its presence in several more.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a press briefing on Thursday: “It is deeply concerning to me that SA and Botswana are being penalised.”

He thanked the two countries for “detecting, sequencing and reporting so rapidly” on Omicron, and said that a “blanket travel ban will not prevent the international spread of the virus and will place a heavy burden on livelihoods”.

“The ban has also hampered research by slowing down the transportation of samples around the globe for in-depth testing in labs,” he said.

According to WHO technical lead on Covid-19, Maria van Kerkhove, scientists in SA “should be commended and we need to strengthen our surveillance and sequencing around the world and have better geographic representation across the planet”.

She added: “We do not want to see countries being penalised for sharing information. A special thank you goes out to so many researchers across SA.”

According to Ghebreyesus: “The emergence of Omicron has captured global attention. Twenty-three countries have now reported cases and we expect that number to grow. We are learning all the time about Omicron but there is more to learn about transmission, and its impact on severity of disease.”

Van Kerkhove said since Omicron was classified as a variant of concern “the timeline will change” as a backlog of cases is analysed.

“It is absolutely critical to get vaccinated as vaccines are saving lives,” she said.

Dr Michael Ryan, who heads the health emergencies programme at the WHO, said that “banning flights except for your own citizens makes no epidemiological sense”.

“A virus doesn’t know what country you’re a citizen of,” he said.

Countries with confirmed cases had faced no travel bans, yet others with no cases had seen bans and this showed the dire lack of logic in knee-jerk decisions.

Ryan added: “Healthcare workers  are sick of counting the dead, and losing their friends.”

He said that the enduring crisis in Europe is still the Delta variant and that it was crucial for vaccine rollouts to continue unabated.

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