South Africa Laments Travel Bans; Dutch Airport Tests for New Variant

ImageA lab at the Nelson Mandela School of Medicine in Durban. South African scientists alerted global health authorities on Thursday to a new variant.
Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times

JOHANNESBURG — As the United States and European countries close their borders over fears over the recently detected coronavirus variant, many South Africans say they feel as if they are being “punished” for alerting global health authorities.

Hours after South African scientists announced the existence of a new variant that they said displayed “a big jump in evolution,” Britain banned travelers from southern African nations. Other European nations and the United States quickly followed suit.

“I do apologize that people took a very radical decision,” said Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform and the scientist who announced the new variant on Thursday.

Fresh from a virtual meeting with global health leaders, including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser on the coronavirus, Mr. Oliveira told journalists he believed that international solidarity would be in favor of South Africa’s decision to publicize its findings.

The variant, named Omicron by the World Health Organization, was first detected in South Africa and in neighboring Botswana. The government in Botswana announced that four initial cases were all foreign diplomats who had since left, and that contact tracing was continuing.

Cases have also now been spotted in Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel, in travelers sometimes returning from countries other than South Africa or Botswana, and suspected cases are being investigated in Germany and the Czech Republic.

Source: Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University. The daily average is calculated with data that was reported in the last seven days.

The economies of South Africa and Botswana are reliant on tourists from the United States, Europe and China. South Africa’s tourism minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, described the temporary travel bans as “devastating.” Earlier this year, South African diplomats and scientists lobbied the British government to lift a previous ban that had already crippled tourism.

“We had been on the British red list and we worked our way out of it and with no notification we find ourselves back on the red list,” Ms. Sisulu told a national television station.

“Perhaps our scientists’ ability to trace some of these variants has been our biggest weakness,” Ms. Sisulu said. “We’re finding ourselves punished for the work that we do.”

Health officials in Africa suggested that increased screening at points of entry, or even longer quarantine periods, would have been a better alternative.

“This will just discourage different countries for sharing information which might be very important for global public health,” said Thierno Balde, incident manager for the Covid-19 emergency response for the World Health Organization’s regional office in Africa.

South Africa’s transparency was criticized by some local officials and businesspeople. Geordin Hill-Lewis, the mayor of Cape Town, said South African officials should have consulted their “travel partners” before making the announcement.

In January 2020, before global travel restrictions over the coronavirus pandemic, 93,315 international tourists arrived at Cape Town International airport, according to Statistics South Africa. By May 2021, that number had dropped to 4,821.

After the travel restrictions imposed after the highly transmissible Delta variant, Mr. Hill-Lewis said he believed that South African authorities should have expected the restrictions.

“That should have been foreseen and some heavy diplomacy put into action,” he said.

But Craig Lucke, a Cape Town-based guide who operates tours in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa called the countries’ actions “a total shocker.”

Credit…Laurens Bosch/EPA, via Shutterstock

Sixty-one people from two flights from South Africa to the Netherlands have tested positive for the coronavirus, Dutch health officials said early Saturday. It was unclear as of late morning local time if the cases were linked to the newly discovered Omicron variant.

The health officials tested 600 passengers who arrived on Friday morning at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. Those who tested negative were allowed to leave the airport and quarantine at home, or to continue their journeys.

When the Netherlands announced its travel restrictions on flights from southern Africa, the two KLM flights were already on their way to Schiphol. About half an hour before the first one landed, health officials were dispatched to the airport to conduct the tests there, said Harm Groustra, a spokesman for the GGD, the Dutch public health service.

One of the passengers stuck on the tarmac was the New York Times reporter Stephanie Nolan, who had been in South Africa covering the country’s response to the pandemic.

“So I’m in my 3d hour on a tarmac at Schiphol,” she tweeted, after her flight from Johannesburg had landed. “While my flight from Jo’burg was somewhere over Chad, Europe went into variant panic; by the time we landed, we weren’t allowed off the plane.”

Many passengers had ignored mask requirements, she said.

Dutch health officials said in a statement that they understood frustration among passengers who had thought that they would be allowed to go home, but were instead “confronted with a situation like we’ve never had before in the Netherlands.”

Hugo de Jonge, the country’s health minister, tweeted that those with a positive test were being taken to a quarantine hotel near the airport. “Now it’s important to research whether this concerns the Omicron variant,” he wrote.

People who tested positive have to stay at the hotel for at least seven days if they have symptoms, or for five days if they do not, health officials said. Passengers who had tested positive for the coronavirus and live with people who were on the flight will be allowed to spend their quarantine at home.

Cases have been rising quickly in the Netherlands, which yesterday announced stricter measures to try to curb the spread of the virus, including an evening lockdown that starts at 5 p.m. Last week, almost 154,000 people tested positive, a 39 percent increase from the week before.

“The number of coronavirus infections has never been as high as in the past week,” the government said on Friday, adding that the caseload was at risk of overwhelming hospitals in the country.

Jason Horowitz contributed reporting.

Credit…Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

As Saturday dawned around the world, more countries were introducing restrictions on travelers from southern Africa over concerns about the emerging Omicron coronavirus variant.

Australia announced on Saturday that it had closed its borders to noncitizens from nine southern African countries — South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique — and that flights from there would be immediately suspended for 14 days. Australian citizens who arrive from those countries will need to quarantine in a hotel for two weeks, and anyone who has already arrived in the last two weeks must immediately isolate, officials said.

No cases of the Omicron variant have been recorded yet in Australia, although 20 people who recently arrived from South Africa are isolating in a quarantine camp, the country’s health minister, Greg Hunt, said at a news conference on Saturday. One person out of the 20 has tested positive for the virus and the case is being studied.

Thailand, Oman, Morocco and Sri Lanka announced similar restrictions on Saturday. Japan also said that it would tighten border controls for arrivals from three more countries — Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia — a day after announcing similar measures for South Africa and six other nations.

The government of Canada said late Friday that it would bar foreign nationals who had been in seven of the countries within two weeks of their planned arrival in Canada. Canadian citizens and permanent residents who have been in the region within two weeks of coming home can still return but will face enhanced testing and quarantine protocols, regardless of their vaccination status.

The Omicron variant had not been detected in Canada as of Friday night. The government described its new restrictions as a precautionary step and cited similar actions in Britain, the European Union and the United States.

Saudi Arabia has also suspended flights to and from seven southern African countries, the country’s official news agency reported on Friday. And Ciro Nogueira, the chief of staff to President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, said on Twitter that the country would halt its air traffic with six African countries on Monday.

Russia said in a statement published online on Friday that it would restrict entry starting Sunday for foreign citizens from eight southern African countries and in Hong Kong, which reported two cases of the variant on Friday. The restrictions also apply to foreign citizens who have traveled in those territories within the last 10 days.

“This variant has not yet been found on the territory of Russia,” the statement said. The restrictions will come into effect from midnight.

The W.H.O. has said that the Omicron variant carries a number of genetic mutations that may allow it to spread quickly, perhaps even among the vaccinated.

The speed at which travel restrictions have been imposed on southern African nations in recent days demonstrates how, two years into the pandemic, many policymakers would now rather risk overreacting to a new threat than underreacting.

“These new measures are being put in place out of an abundance of caution,” Jean-Yves Duclos, Canada’s health minister, said in a statement. “We will continue to do what is necessary to protect the health of Canadians.”

Credit…Sascha Steinbach/EPA, via Shutterstock

Scientific experts at the World Health Organization warned on Friday that a new coronavirus variant discovered in southern Africa was a “variant of concern,” the most serious category the agency uses for such tracking.

The designation, announced after an emergency meeting of the health body, is reserved for dangerous variants that may spread quickly, cause severe disease or decrease the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments. The last coronavirus variant to receive this label was Delta, which took off this summer and now accounts for virtually all Covid cases in the United States.

The W.H.O. said the new version, named Omicron, carries a number of genetic mutations that may allow it to spread quickly, perhaps even among the vaccinated.

Independent scientists agreed that Omicron warranted urgent attention, but also pointed out that it would take more research to determine the extent of the threat. Although some variants of concern, like Delta, have lived up to initial worries, others have had a limited impact.

William Hanage, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and other researchers said that vaccines will most likely protect against Omicron, but further studies are needed to determine how much of the shots’ effectiveness may be reduced.

As the coronavirus replicates inside people, new mutations constantly arise. Most provide the virus with no new advantage. When worrisome mutations do emerge, the World Health Organization uses Greek letters to name the variants. The first “variant of concern,” Alpha, appeared in Britain in late 2020, soon followed by Beta in South Africa.

Omicron first came to light in Botswana, where researchers at the Botswana Harvard H.I.V. Reference Laboratory in Gaborone sequenced the genes of coronaviruses from positive test samples. They found some samples sharing about 50 mutations not found in such a combination before. So far, six people have tested positive for Omicron in Botswana, according to an international database of variants.

Around the same time, researchers in South Africa stumbled across Omicron in a cluster of cases in the province of Gauteng. As of Friday, they have listed 58 Omicron samples on the variant database. But at a news conference on Thursday, Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the Centre for Epidemic Response & Innovation in South Africa, said that “close to two or three hundred” genetic sequences of Omicron cases would be released in the next few days.

Credit…Ina Fassbender/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The highly mutated new coronavirus variant known as Omicron is “very likely” to already be present in Germany, a regional health minister warned on Saturday.

At least one person who recently returned from South Africa has tested positive for Covid-19 and while the full sequencing of the variant that infected him has yet to be completed, several of the mutations already identified were typical of Omicron, Kai Klose, health minister of the western state of Hesse, said on Twitter. The variant was first detected in southern Africa.

Hesse contains the city of Frankfurt, a financial hub with a busy airport where two Lufthansa flights arrived from South Africa on Friday.

“There is a very strong suspicion, the person has been isolated at home,” Mr. Klose tweeted. “The #Omicron variant is with a very high probability already in Germany.”

The news prompted fresh concern at a time when Germany is already struggling to curb a brutal fourth wave of the pandemic that has produced tens of thousands of new daily infections — more than the country has had at any point in the pandemic. Hospitals across the country are struggling to accommodate the surge in Covid patients.

Germany is now one of several European countries with suspected or confirmed cases of the new variant. Belgium reported a case on Friday, in a traveler returning from outside southern Africa, and health officials in the Czech Republic said on Saturday that they were examining a suspected case in a person who spent time in Namibia, according to the news agency Reuters.

The full sequencing on the suspected case of Omicron in Hesse will only be completed early next week, said Sandra Ciesek, director of the Institute of Medical Virology at the University Hospital of Frankfurt.

The German government restricted travel from South Africa on Friday. As of midnight on Saturday, it will be designated a high-risk “variant region,” which means airlines are only allowed to transport German residents to Germany. All those who arrive have to quarantine for 14 days, even if they are vaccinated.

Credit…David Zalubowski/Associated Press

President Biden will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other African countries to try to contain a troubling new variant of the coronavirus, senior administration officials said on Friday, though they said it would be impossible to prevent it from entering the United States.

Starting on Monday, the administration will prohibit travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi from coming to the United States, the officials said.

The travel ban will not apply to American citizens or lawful permanent residents, officials said. But they will need to show a negative coronavirus test before coming to the United States.

Mr. Biden made the decision after he was briefed by advisers including Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, who said in an interview Friday that the variant appeared to be spreading rapidly and that he and other health officials in the United States were consulting with South African scientists. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in a statement late Friday that no cases of the new variant had been identified in the United States.

The White House announced the decision after the World Health Organization said the newly detected version of the virus, labeled Omicron, was “a variant of concern,” a category for dangerous variants that may spread quickly, cause severe disease or decrease the effectiveness of vaccines or treatments.

“I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious,” Mr. Biden told reporters in Nantucket. “We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is a great concern and seems to spread rapidly.”

By imposing the travel restrictions, the administration will not stop the virus from coming to the United States. But it can give health officials and pharmaceutical companies time to determine whether the current vaccines work against the new variant — and if not, to create new vaccines that do.

“It’s going to buy us some time,” Dr. Fauci said. “It’s not going to be possible to keep this infection out of the country. The question is: Can you slow it down?”

Dr. Fauci said the new variant has about 30 mutations, and roughly 10 of them are on a part of the virus that is associated with transmissibility and immune protection. That suggests the virus may be more transmissible and may escape the current vaccines “to an extent yet to be determined.”

He said there had been some breakthrough infections among those who had recovered from the Delta variant, and among those who were vaccinated.

But at the same time, he said, scientists do not know the severity of the infections caused by the new variant. It is entirely possible that it spreads more quickly but causes less severe disease.

“You don’t want to say don’t worry, and you don’t want to say you’ve got to worry yourself sick, because we’re gathering information rapidly,” he said, adding, “Even though the numbers are still small, the doubling time is pretty rapid and the slope of the increase is really rather sharp.”

Biden administration officials said they were continuing to work with health officials in other countries to learn more about the variant.

“Restricting travel is going to slow its coming, not stop it from coming,” said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania and an adviser to the president during his transition. “The fact that it’s coming here is inevitable. The environment in which it comes may not be inevitable. We can alter the environment.”

Mr. Biden said on Friday that the rise of the Omicron variant was another reason for vaccinated Americans to get boosters and unvaccinated Americans to get inoculated — a point Dr. Fauci echoed. And Mr. Biden said the development should push the international community to donate more vaccines to nations suffering from a lack of access or poor vaccination rates.

Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota who also advised Mr. Biden during his transition, said the administration had little choice on implementing the travel ban.

But Dr. Osterholm said it could take time before scientists know if the current vaccines are effective against the variant, and how transmissible it is. One way to figure that out is through laboratory studies, which will take several weeks, he said. Another way is to follow breakthrough cases in people who are already vaccinated, which could take months.

Credit…Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Asian countries with some of the world’s highest vaccination rates are rushing to expand booster shots as winter approaches and the coronavirus surges again through Europe.

After initially trailing other wealthy countries on vaccinations, several Asian nations have now overtaken them. As 2022 approaches and the new Omicron variant prompts alarm, they are calibrating their booster strategies at a time when the virus is crashing through highly vaccinated countries in Europe where boosters are not yet widely available.

The European Union’s public health agency recommended on Wednesday that all adults receive a booster shot, especially people over 40. On Thursday, its executive arm proposed that residents of the bloc will need booster shots to avoid tests or quarantines when traveling to other E.U. member states.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director general, has also warned against a “false sense of security” over the protection offered by vaccines. “No country is out of the woods,” he said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Officials from highly vaccinated nations in East and Southeast Asia are well aware.

Singapore, which has one of the world’s highest Covid vaccination rates, has administered two doses to nearly nine in ten residents, according to a New York Times tracker. After authorizing third doses for seniors on Sept. 14 — a few days before both Britain and the United States — the city-state is now giving booster shots to people 30 and above, as well as to health care and frontline workers over age 18.

Other Asian countries are ahead of Europe in expanding access to boosters. Already, officials in Cambodia, Malaysia and Japan — countries where nearly 80 percent or more of the populations are fully vaccinated — have announced plans to give boosters to all adults.

And last week in South Korea, where nearly four in five people are fully vaccinated, the government reduced the period between second and third doses from six months to as few as four. It also expanded eligibility for shots to people 50 and over, after opening third shots to high-risk adults and those 60 and over in late October.

Kwon Jun-wook, director of the country’s National Institute of Health, has said that South Korea weighed Europe’s situation in considering its own vaccine strategy.

“In those countries, the first wave of infections after countries began reopening were mostly among the unvaccinated,” he told reporters last week. “Then infections gradually expanded to the group with waning immunity after getting vaccinated. Now we are seeing countries in Europe and, needless to say, the United States, struggle very hard to return to normalcy.”

While studies have shown that the effectiveness of vaccines can wane over time, the need for boosters has been the subject of intense debate.

Critics say that wealthy nations must stop hoarding doses. Earlier this month, Dr. Tedros described the global disparity in Covid vaccine access “a scandal that must stop now,” noting that six times more booster shots were being administered globally than primary doses in low-income countries.

Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

As global concern rose on Friday about a new coronavirus variant, Gov. Kathy Hochul declared a state of emergency in New York, giving her the power to order hospitals to limit nonessential procedures to boost capacity in facilities.

The new variant, called Omicron, has officially been named a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization. The designation means that the variant has mutations that might make it more contagious or more virulent, or make vaccines and other preventive measures less effective — though none of those effects has yet been established.

The new measures in New York — which saw thousands of deaths from Covid-19 in 2020 — will take effect on Dec. 3, and are a far cry from the strict, society-wide restrictions which accompanied the early stages of the pandemic.

Source: State and local health agencies. Daily cases are the number of new cases reported each day. The seven-day average is the average of the most recent seven days of data.

Still, the quick action by Gov. Hochul suggests the high level of concern not just about rising numbers of new cases across the state in recent weeks, but about the Omicron variant, which has already prompted several countries, including the United States, to restrict travelers from southern Africa.

“We continue to see warning signs of spikes this upcoming winter, and while the new Omicron variant has yet to be detected in New York State, it’s coming,” Ms. Hochul, a Democrat, said in a statement, adding that vaccination remained a critical tool in fighting the virus.

Rates of positive tests in New York have crept up recently, even as vaccination rates have improved, with some counties recording positivity rates of more than 10 percent. In the two weeks before Thanksgiving Day, the daily average of new cases reported in New York rose 37 percent, to 6,666, according to a New York Times database. More than 56,000 people have died of the disease in New York.

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