Omicron is not a South African Variant

South Africa has railed against travel restrictions levelled against it in response to its research on the omicron variant over the past two weeks. South Africa’s foreign minister, Naledi Pandor, said the country was “punished” for its scientific success. 

“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,” said the ministry in a statement. “Excellent science should be applauded and not punished.”

Where did the Omicron Variant Come From?

A Zimbabwe-born scientist, Dr Sikhulile Moyo, was the first to sequence the variant at the laboratory in Gaborone, Botswana on 11 November. South Africa-based scientists then began aggressive sequencing of test samples taken from 12 November.

As Nature reported it, “Genome sequencing and other genetic analysis from a team…at the University of KwaZulu-Natal found that the B.1.1.529 variant was responsible for all 77 of the virus samples they analysed from Gauteng” from 12 November to 20 November. These and other findings were publicised at a press briefing organised by the South African health department on Wednesday 25 November.

These data showed the new variant was out-competing the delta variant, bringing it to scientists’ attention worldwide. This ultimately led to the WHO’s Friday decision to name the variant omicron – incidentally, not the next Greek letter after delta, but the one after Xi – which triggered the travel bans on South Africa, Botswana and neighbouring countries.

Given that omicron came to the Western world’s attention two weeks after the initial sample was taken, it’s not surprising that sequencing efforts following in the wake of South African researcher’s findings have (so far) turned up positive samples in Australia, Belgium, UK, Italy, Israel, Hong Kong and Germany.

In particular, the Belgian omicron case was notable for a travel history that included Egypt and Turkey, but no countries in southern Africa. No wonder South Africans feel stigmatised by the travel bans.

The efforts of scientists in South Africa show that the stronger healthcare systems are worldwide, the better off we all are. That means not just vaccine supply, but long overdue political and economic solidarity with social-democratic governments in the Global South.

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