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WHO knocks travel bans over omicron fears

The World Health Organization isn't happy that many countries have banned travel from southern Africa over fears sparked by the omicron coronavirus strain.

(CN) — The World Health Organization on Wednesday said it is too soon to know how dangerous the new coronavirus variant omicron is but its experts reprimanded countries for imposing travel bans to stop its spread.

Since the highly mutated omicron strain was first reported last week, its emergence has sparked alarm around the globe and prompted a slew of countries – including the United States and European nations – to ban flights from southern Africa, where scientists first detected the strain.

A lot remains unknown about the virus even as scientists race to better understand it. The omicron variant has been found in at least 23 nations in five of the WHO's six regions. The strain is behind a rapid spike in cases in South Africa in recent days, but so far scientists there say the strain has not proven to provoke a more severe infection.

“It's still very early days in terms of our understanding of this variant,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's technical lead on the coronavirus pandemic, at a briefing at the agency's Geneva headquarters.

She said it remains unclear if this strain is more transmissible and whether its mutations make it more capable of infecting vaccinated people. Regardless, WHO scientists said vaccines are saving lives and they believe inoculation will help protect people against severe omicron infections too.

Van Kerkhove said there appears to be a rise in people needing hospital care in Africa but she said that might be due to a rise in infections there rather than evidence that omicron is more dangerous. Scientists say they will need a couple of weeks to provide answers.

Nonetheless, the emergence of omicron has spooked the world and caused more rifts as richer countries – already accused of hoarding vaccines – have closed their borders to southern Africa.

Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said he was “deeply concerned” that South Africa and Botswana are being penalized “for doing the right thing” and reporting the existence of a new strain.

The global health agency's experts said travel bans may help countries initially prepare their health systems for an epidemic, but they said bans hinder scientific cooperation and could lead countries to not want to announce the discovery of new strains.

Instead of banning travelers, countries should use testing, quarantines and other measures to stop travelers from importing the disease, the WHO said.

“Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of omicron and they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods,” Tedros said.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa called the bans unfair and unscientific. Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera said they were uncalled for and accused countries of “Afrophobia.”

Still, there are plenty of examples where closed borders have prevented the spread of the deadly coronavirus. China and New Zealand, for instance, have severely restricted foreigners and in doing so kept Covid-19 infections in check.

Getting countries to better coordinate efforts to prevent and react in unison to future pandemics took a step forward on Wednesday when the World Health Assembly, a United Nations body that oversees the WHO, voted to begin negotiations on a new convention on future pandemics. The assembly met in Geneva.

Under such a convention, the WHO could be given more powers to investigate outbreaks and countries could be compelled to share vaccines, medical equipment and other disease-fighting tools. Countries also want a boost on spending to detect new pathogens.

“The significance of this decision cannot be overstated,” Tedros said. “Today the nations of the world have made a strong statement that health security is too important to be left to chance or goodwill or shifting geopolitical currents or vested interests.”

He has championed a new convention as a critical step in preventing the world from reacting to a future pandemic in the disjointed and catastrophic way it has done with this pandemic. He equated a pandemic treaty to past U.N. conventions designed to combat tobacco use, nuclear arms proliferation and climate change.

Negotiations on the convention are slated to last until 2024, he said.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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