The discovery of the highly contagious corona variant B.1.1.529, which is probably assigned the Greek letter ‘now’, in South Africa was no accident. Last December, the discoverer, Professor Tulio de Oliveira, was also the one who announced the identification of the infamous delta variant, which turned out to be 60 percent more contagious than the variants known until then.
De Oliveira is a bioinformatician at Stellenbosch University and after the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, China, created a network at the beginning of 2020 to which seven universities in South Africa, as well as all private and government laboratories, are affiliated.
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This Network for Genomic Surveillance South Africa saw something remarkable happen last Wednesday. In Gauteng province, after weeks with hardly any infections, a thousand new cases were suddenly reported in one day, mainly among young people. The collaborating researchers soon identified a new variant, “with an unusual constellation of mutations,” which the health ministry now says is a “major threat” to the country. So far, 77 cases have been identified in South Africa and four in neighboring Botswana. Two infections with the variant were also reported in Hong Kong after a traveler from the region infected someone else in hotel quarantine, and the variant was found in Israel in a traveler from Malawi. At least one infection with the new variant was also found in Belgium on Friday.
“The fact that the genomes have been identified here does not mean that the variant also comes from here,” De Oliveira underlined on Thursday at a specially inserted press conference.
But on Friday morning, the United Kingdom (46,000 new infections per day) announced that it would immediately suspend all flights from South Africa (2,465 infections per day) and the neighboring countries of Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia, Mozambique, Botswana and Zimbabwe. In the course of the day, one country after another quickly followed with the same no-fly zone. The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and Spain, among others, responded to a request from the European Commission. Russia, Japan, Singapore and Malaysia, among others, also restricted air traffic from southern Africa.
De Oliveira is furious. As if South Africa is being punished for the thorough detective work of him and his colleagues. “The world should protect and help South Africa and Africa, not discriminate or isolate,” he tweeted Friday.
Damage to tourism
Travel agents and tour operators say they are “defeated” by the massive cancellations from the UK and the Netherlands, just as the summer months and tourist season are upon us. More than 700,000 South Africans worked in tourism before the corona outbreak. The South African government called on the countries to withdraw their no-fly decisions, “because the World Health Organization has not even decided what to do with this new variant.” “We are concerned about the damage this decision will do to tourism and businesses in both countries,” said the Minister for International Relations and Cooperation, Naledi Pandor, shortly after London shut down flights from South Africa. More than 400,000 Britons visited South Africa each year before the pandemic.
Even though the number of infections in the United Kingdom is much higher than in South Africa, the British government maintained a ten-day forced quarantine in a hotel for anyone entering from South Africa until last month. Cost: 2,000 euros. That measure had only just been abolished when the new variant was discovered in South Africa.
Less than 30 percent of South Africans have been vaccinated to date. In other African countries, the percentage is much lower. Only 6 percent of the total population on the continent is fully vaccinated.
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The World Health Organization has long been angry about vaccine nationalism of the rich countries and warns of more mutations if the whole world is not vaccinated. Many rich countries are now having their populations tested for the third time with booster vaccines and are making special deals with major pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. A factory of the latter company in Nelson Mandela Bay in South Africa even packs vaccines for export to Europe, while the majority of the population in South Africa has not been vaccinated.
The vaccine distribution for poor countries ran into serious problems earlier this year when the Serum Institute in India had to stop exporting through the special Covax program because Covid-19 caused so many victims in its own country. Just this Friday it was announced that the Indian institute will resume deliveries to Covax after eight months.
According to the Dutch consulate in Cape Town, an unknown number of travelers have been stranded. The next KLM flight to Amsterdam would depart tonight.