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It’s called Omicron... and it’s officially a variant of concern

Published Nov 27, 2021


LAST night the World Health Organization said the new virus identified by South African scientists was a virus of concern and classified it as Omicron.

This came soon after a media briefing by South African Minister of Health Joe Phaahla with leading scientists and doctors.

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The UK and other nations were slammed for the “knee-jerk” implementation of flight bans, stranding travellers in South Africa, Britain and elsewhere.

The variant was identified and announced by South Africa on Thursday.

Yesterday, the WHO said the first known infection was from a specimen collected on November 9. It did not say where the sample was taken.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.”

It added that “this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage”.

Immediately after the identification by South Africa, the UK banned travel to and from this country, leaving travellers in the lurch. Soon after, some EU and Asian countries tightened restrictions.

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Last night, the Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said at a meeting with the media that the announcement “made by our scientists has created some consternation, panic and some uncertainty” and “some of the reaction has been unjustified”, particularly from the UK and Europe.

The identification of the new variant on Thursday was “in line with the norms and standards as prescribed by WHO when dealing with the pandemic” and the changes identified in “preliminary studies suggest that this variant might be more transmissible and on the suggestion that antibodies may not respond to the mutation. At no stage did the scientists say the vaccinations would not work,” said Phaahla.

He said WHO Africa contacted him yesterday and expressed disgust at the countries barring travel.

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“It is a very counter-productive reaction to (blame South Africa) if you have a high capability in genome sequencing and analysis of diseases. In the early days people were not coming forward because of shaming and blaming and stigmatising and this can happen to countries. This will force countries to go underground.”

Dr Rudi Mathivha from Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital said there were more young people in their 20s to late 30s suffering with moderate to severe Covid and that 65% had not been vaccinated and of the rest most had only had one of their two required doses.

Professor Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (Krisp) and Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation (CERI) in South Africa, said more than 100 top international scientists had been meeting all day yesterday.

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“On the scientific front we are very concerned about the potential properties,” he said.

“WHO did praise SA about coming out with this very quickly and to take decisions earlier rather than later. Going public was the right decision. To get out of this pandemic we have to act quick, fast and with all the data we have.

“The UK had a knee-jerk reaction and this would discourage other countries with new mutations from coming forward. Scientifically, travel bans do not make much sense, it’s better to quarantine or test.”

De Oliveira said it “became very clear from all these meetings, it’s very, very important to increase the rate of vaccination in SA, control this virus with public health measures, masks etc, and stop superspreading events.

“These waves normally come from young people at large gatherings and it spreads up to older people with comorbidities.”

Yesterday, the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD), said hospitalisation and outcomes related to Omicron were being monitored in real time.

Meanwhile, traveller Leon Dessels, a former South African living in the UK, was due to leave SA next Tuesday.

“My wife and daughter left on November 13 and I stayed on for an extra two weeks to finish some work. I was meant to be back in the UK for Christmas,” said Dessels, adding that he only saw the news of the new variant yesterday morning.

“My wife and daughter are in a state, as Christmas is coming, so that’s grim. But we do have a house here, so I’m not caught in the middle of nowhere and I work remotely. The dilemma is for how long? I want to be with my family,” he said.

Ex-South African and retired newspaperman Dennis Rink said he had “sneaked back into the UK on the last flight from South Africa”.

“Now I have to self-isolate for 10 days,” he said from the UK yesterday. “Of course, it was only when we landed that everyone’s phones started pinging to say flights from SA were being halted.”

Another ex-South African, Ruth Carter and her daughter Bronwyn, were packed and ready to come to South Africa this weekend to visit family and friends for Christmas.

“It’s devastating and irritating, the airline has not come back to us, all we know is that all the flights are cancelled,” said Carter yesterday.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to be briefed on the new variant tomorrow.

The Independent on Saturday