By Mary Hearty

The World Health Organization (WHO) has urged countries to implement science and International Health Regulations (2005) as a number of countries are imposing flight bans on southern Africa nations due to the new Omicron variant- first reported in South Africa.

Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of COVID-19 but place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods. If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive, and should be scientifically based, according to the International Health Regulations which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognized by over 190 nations.

Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa said: “The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended. WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19.”

The emergence of the Omicron variant comes in the wake of the World Health Assembly, organized by WHO. Nations will be joining this special session to discuss how to collectively prepare and respond better to pandemics, building on their commitments to the International Health Regulations.

On the eve of a special session on pandemic preparedness Dr Moeti urged all countries to respect their legal obligations and implement scientifically based public health actions, noting that it is critical that countries which are open with their data are supported as this is the only way to ensure we receive important data in a timely manner.

“With the Omicron variant now detected in several regions of the world, putting in place travel bans that target Africa attacks global solidarity. COVID-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the better of the virus if we work together for solutions,” said Dr Moeti.

WHO is scaling up support to genomic sequencing in Africa. Sequencing laboratories should have access to adequate human resources and testing reagents to work at full capacity.

WHO is ready to support the additional human resource needs as well as mobilize funds and technical expertise to reinforce COVID-19 response activities including surveillance, treatment and infection prevention and community engagement in southern African countries.

In addition, WHO is reaching out to all countries in the Region to ensure they receive necessary resources to detect and prepare for potential cases of Omicron.

WHO is urging countries to take key steps to enhance efforts to track the Omicron variant, including ensuring their PCR testing equipment can detect it, increasing their sampling and sequencing of COVID-19 test samples by at least double to 150 samples a week from the current average of 75, and review past sequencing samples for potential signs of Omicron.

In September 2020, WHO and the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention launched network of 12 laboratories to reinforce genome sequencing of the virus. Genomic surveillance has advanced significantly since the start of 2021, with the continent recording a five-fold increase in the number of genomes sequenced.