Authors: Mendelson M, Venter F, Moshabela M, Gray G, Blumberg L, de Oliveira T, Madhi SA
On Dec 24, 2020, the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced an immediate travel ban on all flights to South Africa after the detection of SARS-CoV-2 beta variant by South African scientists.1 The resulting travel restriction was lifted 291 days later. On Nov 25, 2021, South African scientists reported a new SARS-CoV-2 variant, B.1.1.529, that was subsequently designated omicron. Although the omicron variant has mutations that could make it less susceptible to neutralising antibody activity and possibly as trans- missible as or more transmissible than the delta variant,2 such concerns have yet to be determined by in-vitro and in-vivo evidence. Furthermore, it is also relevant to consider that although antibody activity induced by the ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 vaccine (AZD1222) had nominal neutralising activity against the beta variant and failed to protect against mild to moderate COVID-19 due to the beta variant, the vaccine still reduced risk of severe COVID-19 due to beta or gamma variants by 80%.
2 days after the identification of omicron, the UK Government promptly reapplied a travel ban on travel from South Africa and some other African countries.5 Several other countries, such as Israel and the USA, swiftly followed suit with travel bans from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, citing this action as a precautionary measure.6 This unwarranted action has generated intense anger and frustration. Travel restrictions are unlikely to be able to stop the spread of coronaviruses unless countries are able to completely seal their borders to travellers from all nations. Predictably, soon after the UK travel ban announcement, cases of the omicron variant were reported in Europe,7 the UK, North America, and, as of Dec 2, 2021, 25 countries in total.8–10 Paradoxically, the most concerning SARS-CoV-2 variants for a highly vaccinated population would likely arise in a high transmission environment where there are high levels of vaccine coverage, such as the UK, France, or Italy, to name but a few.