Omicron Cuts Travel North, As Mozambique Tightens Checks On South Africa Border

News World

The new Covid Omicron variant has already led to sharp travel restrictions between Mozambique and most countries of the north. First discovered two weeks ago in Botswana and South Africa, the variant has an unusually large number of mutations, particularly affecting the spike protein. Initial indications are that it is more infectious, but not leading to more hospital admissions. WHO has labelled the variant Omicron (15th letter of the Greek alphabet and origin of the Latin letter “o”)

The rapid response is due to predictions that Omicron will cause the next global wave of Covid.

South African Covid daily cases jumped from 275 on 16 November to 2800 on 26 November – a 10-fold increase in 10 days. Daily deaths in that period jumped from 15 to 114. Two KLM planes with 600 passengers from South Africa were held at Schiphol airport, Amsterdam, while they were tested. Dutch authorities said that 61 of the 600 tested positive for Covid, and of those, 13 had the Omicron varient.

Covid cases are still falling in Mozambique, down to 32 cases and 2 deaths last week. But there are already cases of Omicron. Italy found the Omicron variant in a fully vaccinated man who returned to Italy from Mozambique a few days ago. (RaiNews 27 Nov) But the question is whether or not Mozambique will restrict the border with South Africa. Confusion over testing caused queues lasting several days in January of this year.

So far, government response has been the opposite. Immigration Service (SENAMI) Maputo Province spokesperson Juca Bata said Wednesday (O Pais 25 Nov) said changes have been made to take a large increase in Christmas-New Year traffic at Ressano Garcia, the country’s largest and busiest land border. The usual 18 booths at the Ressano border post will increase to 29, with an increase in service personnel. Migrant miners returning from South Africa for the holiday will have a separate service. And an entire separate border post has been set up for the 800 trucks a day carrying ferrochrome from South African mines to Maputo port. Unless government decides otherwise, the border will be closed during the national 11 pm to 4 am Covid curfew.

But without restrictions, the wave of visitors and returnees will start the next Covid wave in Mozambique. Mozambicans arriving must be tested and foreigners must prove vaccination, Maputo province medical chief Celestina da Conceição told STV Saturday (27 Nov). Foreigners wishing to enter the country must show proof that they have been vaccinated.

Mozambicans returning to the country will be submitted to rapid tests, or to the more thorough PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests. For citizens who take PCR tests at the border “we have the capacity to follow up those who tested positive, regardless of what provinces they come from. We have a data base that we send to all delegations in the country to follow up these cases”. She added that Maputo province has the capacity to carry out its own tests, with the capacity for carrying out 2,000 tests a day”, she said.

Will there be enough vaccines donated to vaccinate all adults? Speaking on Radio Mozambique, Health Minister Armindo Tiago said he is confident that, by the end of this year, 50% of the population will have been vaccinated. The target figure is 17 million, and to date about 7 mn have received at least one dose of the vaccine.

“Despite the repeated warnings of health leaders, our failure to put vaccines into the arms of people in the developing world is now coming back to haunt us. We were forewarned – and yet here we are,” writes Gordon Brown, former UK prime minister and now WHO ambassador. (Guardian 27 Nov https://bit.ly/3E0KBHs)

“In the absence of mass vaccination, Covid is not only spreading uninhibited among unprotected people but is mutating, with new variants emerging out of the poorest countries and now threatening to unleash themselves on even fully vaccinated people in the richest countries of the world.” Brown notes that earlier this year developed countries promised millions of does. At present the US had delivered 25% of those it promised – the highest now. The EU has delivered 19%, UK 11%, and Canada 3%. “Even as the gap between the vaccines haves of Europe and the vaccine have-nots of Africa mushroomed, the EU insisted on commandeering millions of South African-produced Johnson & Johnson one-shot vaccines and sending them out of Africa into Europe.”

“As of today, 500m unused vaccines are available across the G7. By December, the figure will rise to 600m,” Brown adds. “The alternative is too awful to contemplate; vaccines are being destroyed while lives are being lost through lack of them. According to the data research agency Covax, around 100m of western countries’ vaccines will pass their use-by dates in December and could easily go to waste. Of course, there will be issues of absorption in Africa, but the bigger problem is that too many of the vaccines gifted to the poorest countries are within 12 weeks of their ‘use-by- dates'” – not enough time to properly plan.

African “scientists sharing Omicron data were heroic. Let’s ensure they don’t regret it. The teams in Africa who detected the new Covid genome moved quickly. Their actions should not result in economic loss,” writes Jeffrey Barrett, who leads the Covid-19 genomics initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, which leads the rapid sharing of 1 million Covid sequences.(London Sunday Observer 28 Nov https://bit.ly/3CUMZOI)

“On 23 November, scientists in Botswana uploaded 99 Sars-CoV-2 genome sequences to this database. Like most submissions that day, nearly all the sequences were the dominant Delta variant. But three of them looked different from anything seen before. “Later the same day, an independent team in South Africa uploaded seven nearly identical genomes. These teams noticed that the new variant contained an eye-watering number of mutations in the part of the virus’s genome that encodes the spike protein, which it uses to infect human cells.”

“While these scientists worked around the clock, the fact that they had shared the sequences with the world as part of their routine process, before they even knew what they were, meant that other scientists, thousands of miles away, could study them as well. … The mutations in the new variant also alarmed the international scientists. … Once additional evidence gathered by the local teams in South Africa had been presented, the World Health Organization (WHO) made it the fifth variant of concern, Omicron. Just 72 hours had passed since the original discovery. “The scientists who sounded the alarm because they are committed to the moral imperative of rapid data sharing knew that in the midst of the pandemic it would have consequences. Tulio de Oliveira, one of the leaders of the South African genomics team, announcing the variant, tweeted: ‘The world should provide support to South Africa and Africa and not discriminate or isolate it! By protecting and supporting it, we will protect the world!'”

South Africa cannot get enough Covid-19 vaccine, and less than 25% of South Africans are fully vaccinated. “It would be a disaster if the global response to this heroically open science sent the message that the reward for such bravery is isolation,” writes Barrett.

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