The British Government’s knee-jerk reaction to institute a temporary red list ban on six countries, including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Namibia is exaggerated and punishes countries like South Africa with advanced genome sequencing capability for finding new variants.
Following the announcement that a new variant concern, B1.1.529, had been found in Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong, the British Government confirmed overnight from today 12pm it would add several countries to its red list taking what it calls “precautionary action now” and putting in place a temporary flight ban over the weekend.
“It is far too early to tell what the impact of this new variant will be. By imposing a blanked red list ban on several Southern African countries as a “precautionary” measure the UK sends a signal to the world that they don’t believe that their vaccination programme will effectively deal with the variant when we have seen that COVID-19 vaccines have performed their role to reduce the severity of hospitalisation and death from the virus,” says David Frost, CEO SATSA.
Infectious disease expert Professor Marc Mendelson says there is nothing to indicate at this stage that the protection COVID-19 vaccines offer will change in the face of the latest variant. “COVID-19 vaccines have proven themselves extremely robust against all SARS-CoV-2 variants to date.”
“We need to come to accept that breakthrough infections will remain with the first-generation vaccines. The sooner we come to accept it, the quicker we can recalibrate how to move forward,” says Shabir Madhi is Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Professor of Vaccinology.
Madhi adds: “Vaccines are primarily about preventing severe disease and need to ensure we do what it takes to gain the most benefit from it by using it primarily for that purpose. In the case of B1.1.529, we should learn from what transpired with Beta, which also showed resistance to vaccine-induced antibody, which was associated with no protection against mild Covid for the AstraZeneca vaccine. Nevertheless, the vaccine still conferred high protection against severe Covid due to Beta/Gamma in a Canadian study.”
The knee-jerk reaction comes at a time when South Africa’s tourism and hospitality sector had been hoping for a very different December to that in 2020 when the Beta wave effectively shut it down, businesses closed and many livelihoods were lost.
“The United Kingdom is our key source market and the announcement is devastating for the tourism industry, not only because of the impact to British travellers headed to South Africa during our peak season as their travel plans are summarily disrupted but also because of the message it sends to the rest of the world. South Africa cannot consistently be punished for its advanced genomic sequencing abilities,” says Frost.
“We are extremely disappointed at the British government’s decision and trust that science will prevail and that this temporary ban will be lifted swiftly,” Frost concludes.