– ‘Worrisome variant’ –
The virus has already slipped through the net, with cases discovered in Europe, Hong Kong and Israel and in southern Arica.
Britain on Saturday announced tougher entry rules for all arriving passengers and the return of a mask mandate, after confirming its first two cases of the new Omicron strain of Covid-19.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said face masks would again be required in shops and on public transport.
READ: COVID-19 in SA | Call to raise Omicron awareness
A hospital in the Czech Republic confirmed a case of the Omicron variant in a female patient who had travelled from Namibia.
Germany confirmed its first two cases in travellers who arrived at Munich airport from South Africa.
Italy announced its first case of the new Covid strain in a traveller from Mozambique.
In the US, a White House official said President Joe Biden had been briefed on the Omicron situation and that health officials were monitoring events.
Already on Friday Belgium announced its first case in an unvaccinated person returning from abroad.
The WHO said it could take several weeks to understand the variant, which was initially known as B.1.1.529. It cautioned against travel curbs while scientific evidence remains scant.
– ‘Draconian’ measures –
South Africa called the travel curbs “draconian” and on Saturday said the flight bans were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.
READ: US praises South Africa’s detection of new COVID-19 strain
“Excellent science should be applauded and not punished,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.
The main countries targeted by the shutdown include South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini (Swaziland), Lesotho, Namibia, Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe.
But US Secretary of State Antony Blinken “praised South Africa’s scientists for the quick identification of the Omicron variant and South Africa’s government for its transparency in sharing this information, which should serve as a model for the world”, a State Department statement said.