On Nov. 11, scientists at a major lab in Botswana noticed an unusual genomic sequence in their coronavirus samples.
“It looked like it was far much more distinct as a lineage than what had already been seen,” said Dr. Joseph Makhema, head of the Botswana-Harvard AIDS Institute Partnership, which oversees the lab. They alerted colleagues in South Africa, and also shared details in a global sequencing network.
Scientists in South Africa had noticed COVID-19 cases rising in Gauteng province. They immediately got to work checking and rechecking samples to identify this new strain, said Houriiya Tegally, a bioinformatics researcher at the University of KwaZulu–Natal.
“The world was worried and we wanted to get data out.”
“It was a lot of pressure,” Tegally said. “The world was worried and we wanted to get data out.”
By Friday, the World Health Organization designated omicron as the newest variant of concern, and put the entire world on alert. But, remembering how the world reacted when they identified beta, Tegally anticipated blanket travel bans — which many public health experts say causes more harm than good.
Many places, especially Western countries like the US and in the European Union, announced travel bans from nations in southern Africa, just as omicron cases emerged in other places, from Canada to the United Kingdom to Israel.
The bans have sparked outrage from targeted countries, including South Africa.
“These restrictions are completely unjustified and unfairly discriminate against our country and our south African sister countries,” South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa, said this week.
Ever since researchers in South Africa helped identify the beta variant last year, the country’s network of public and private labs have ramped up their surveillance efforts for new variants, according to Tegally. Across the continent, new sequencing labs have opened, while others have expanded. Some are still getting off the ground.
The origins of the new virus are not yet exactly clear. Malawi’s president posted on social media that the bans are a sign of Afrophobia.
Dr. Ayoade Alakija, co-chair of the African Union’s Vaccine Delivery Alliance, further slammed the travel ban rationale.
“Have a coordinated, global shutdown of travel for the next month if you want, but don’t single out Africa.”
“Why are we locking away Africa when this virus is already on three continents? Nobody is locking away Belgium, nobody is locking away Israel, why are we locking away Africa? It is wrong!” Alakija told the BBC. “Have a coordinated, global shutdown of travel for the next month if you want, but don’t single out Africa.”
Lawrence Gostin, a global health professor at Georgetown University, said the rage is justified.
“In a way we’re just flying blind,” said Gostin, recently appointed to the new National Academy of Sciences Committee that reviews the evidence for travel bans and restrictions.
Bans alone, he said, aren’t the solution, especially with so many exemptions for entry and without global coordination.
“We’ve seen late, inconsistent, and porous travel bans, not realizing that, you know, somebody from southern Africa … flies to Europe and then flies into the United States without any restrictions."
“We’ve seen late, inconsistent, and porous travel bans, not realizing that, you know, somebody from southern Africa … flies to Europe and then flies into the United States without any restrictions,” he said.
Past travel bans — especially when done alone — have caused more harm than good during public health emergencies, according to Gostin. Amid the West African Ebola outbreak, countries closed down borders and focused on preparations for their own potential outbreaks. That resulted in fewer resources and support going to those at the center of the outbreak, Gostin pointed out.
The dynamics of coronavirus, a respiratory infection that has quickly spread around the world, are different from Ebola, according to Kelley Lee, a researcher of cross-border measures at Simon Fraser University in Canada.
"Countries that moved quickly to restrict travel into their jurisdictions bought themselves time,” said Lee, referring to places like China, which implemented very strict and vigilant border measures sustained since the onset. But keeping cases down also involves other measures like social distancing, masking and vaccinations.
Omicron cases in Hong Kong were identified among people in quarantine hotels, where people must go upon entry. This is in stark contrast to much of Europe and the US, which has increasingly opened up and loosened restrictions this summer and fall.
Lee said when it comes to travel policies, consistent screening and testing policies at borders can make a big difference, regardless of destination points. Other measures like contract tracing can make a difference, too.
“As omicron makes its way around the world, we have to see borders not as a stop point, but more as a surveillance point."
“As omicron makes its way around the world, we have to see borders not as a stop point, but more as a surveillance point,” she said.
The World Health Organization has strongly discouraged countries from enacting blanket travel bans. A major worry is that it may disincentivize countries from reporting in the future. It also can have negative economic impacts.
Gostin suggests setting up a system that would compensate countries that report new strains of viruses. This would help cover costs incurred from potential loss due to subsequent bans on travel, trade, or humanitarian assistance.
Meanwhile, the current situation has been difficult for the very scientists in southern Africa who are trying to share vital information about the virus and its spread.
“Rather than people coming up to say, ‘How then can we collaborate and work together in ensuring that we bring resources that are able to track these events for the benefit of all? How do we empower some of this work? How do we work together?’ And you get this pushback. It's very unfortunate,” said Dr. Makhema, in Botswana.
People are suffering economically as a result of the bans, Houriiya Tegally, the scientist at the University of KwaZulu–Natal said.
“As scientists, this really is our job to inform. And then people are very angry at us,” she said.
She said she understands the anger, but still remains focused on sharing what she learns, in the hopes that one day, the world can get ahead of this pandemic.
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