Covid Live Updates: South Africa Laments Variant Travel Bans as Dutch Airport Tests for

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…

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