Nov 27, 2021 - World

South Africa says it's being "punished" for detecting new COVID variant

 South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor addresses the 76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly on September 22, 2021 in New York City.
South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor addresses the 76th session of the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 22 in New York City. Photo: Eduardo Munoz - Pool/Getty Images

South Africa said Saturday it's being "punished" for detecting the new Omicron coronavirus variant as more countries rush to enact travel bans and restrictions.

Driving the news: The U.S. imposed air travel restrictions from eight countries Friday in response to the Omicron variant. Countries in Europe and Asia have also implemented their own travel restrictions in response to Omicron.

The big picture: South Africa, which has some of the world's top epidemiologists and scientists, detected the variant early on in its life cycle, Reuters reports.

  • The variant, known formally as B.1.1.529, was first reported to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24, which then designated it a "variant of concern" on Friday.
  • Early evidence suggests "an increased risk of reinfection with this variant compared to other" variants of concern, the WHO added.

What they're saying: South African officials said Saturday that although new variants have been detected in other countries, "the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in southern Africa."

  • "This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker," the Ministry of International Relations and Cooperation said.
  • "Excellent science should be applauded and not punished," it said in a statement.
  • "Our immediate concern is the damage that these restrictions are causing to families, the travel and tourism industries and business," South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in the statement.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Twitter on Saturday that he spoke to Pandor to "express our deep appreciation for the professionalism and transparency of the South African government and South Africa’s scientists."

  • Blinken "praised South Africa’s scientists for the quick identification of the Omicron variant and South Africa’s government for its transparency in sharing this information, which should serve as a model for the world," spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement following the call.

Go deeper: COVID-19 Omicron variant cases identified in Europe, U.K.

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