Don’t shoot the messenger of Covid-19 new variants, say SA scientists

Don’t shoot the messenger of Covid-19 new variants, say SA scientists
Travellers flock to Cape Town International Airport amid news of a Covid-19 new variant and travel bans on 28 November 2021 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

Will our tourist partners hit South Africa with the same crippling travel bans if we discover another variant?

While most Omicron travel restrictions for South Africans have finally been relaxed, some countries, such as Portugal, Italy and Japan, were desperately slow to lift the fruitless travel bans and quarantine restrictions. And some remnants still remain.

But is this just a brief respite? For experts are certain that another variant is mutating, somewhere out there in the virosphere, ready to hit the world sometime soon.

If it does happen to be SA that identifies that variant, as it did Omicron in November last year and the Beta variant a year before, will SA have to endure the same trauma as it did then? Will foreign countries again slap heavy travel restrictions on South Africa and neighbouring southern African countries?

Or have foreign governments realised that such travel restrictions don’t really work and that their practicability is in any case diminishing as the coronavirus evolves into a less virulent, endemic disease?

This is not clear. As South Africa’s deputy director-general of health, Dr Nicholas Crisp, observes: “The world is a fickle and unpredictable place.”

There are both encouraging and worrying signs about how this could play out.

For example, UK transport minister Grant Shapps – the one who red-listed South Africa and several other southern African countries in November 2021 because of Omicron and reintroduced bans on them and 10-day quarantines for Britons returning from countries – scrapped all travel tests for travellers entering Britain last month. Fully vaccinated travellers into England no longer need to have PCR tests, which only the unvaccinated must have.

Shapps said “our future depends on living with endemic Covid, just like we do with flu”.

No countries would be on the red list.

However, Shapps added ominously that the only way a country would go back on the red list was if there was a variant found that was more worrying than Omicron.

The EU introduced a similar policy on 1 February, recommending that its 27 member states base their Covid travel regulations on the individual situation of travellers, rather than their country of origin.

But the EU policy included an “emergency brake” measure that could be applied if the epidemiological situation in a region deteriorated rapidly, in particular where a variant of concern or interest was detected.

“Under the emergency brake, measures such as testing and quarantine can be introduced, including for EU digital Covid certificate holders and essential travellers,” it said.

And so Dr Marc Mendelson, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Cape Town – while emphasising that he had “no crystal ball” – said “it is certainly within the bounds of possibility that the UK and other countries may resort to further travel bans should a new variant emerge in southern Africa, as was the case with Omicron”.

“Having happened twice, it would be unwise to think otherwise. However, I would hope that they would be quicker to drop any imposed ban once cases emerge outside of the area it starts in. Hope springs eternal.

“The effectiveness of travel bans [depends] entirely on their coverage.

“Half-arsed measures like the UK and others imposed for previous variants will have the same effect, i.e. merely a minor delay in entry of the variant. If you are NZ or Hong Kong and run a zero cases policy (not that either are any longer), that could work. But [the] bottom line is, no. It won’t work. Whether governments are clever enough to understand that, however, is anyone’s guess.”

Crisp is a little more optimistic about the prospects. He told DM168: “We fully expect another variant. If it follows the pattern we expect, it will be less virulent. But we have learnt to expect anything.”

Dr Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at Wits, is even more optimistic.

“I think the lessons have been learnt globally not just with Omicron but also with the Beta variant, where the evidence clearly indicates that by the time these variants are identified, they have already very much started to spread globally.

“In the case of the Omicron variant, we saw, within a week of it being reported in South Africa, cases started to pop up in many high-income countries. And in the United States it probably traces back to late October when it had already been imported into the country.

“So, I think there have been important lessons learnt and I think it’s unlikely that we will see high-income-country governments imposing travel bans again should there be a new variant.”

Madhi had earlier tweeted that it seemed South Africa had passed a turning point in the pandemic in early 2022, moving into a “convalescent phase”. While many high-income countries had at first believed that SA’s experience was not applicable to their circumstances, they are now beginning to realise that it is.

Some South Africans believe the Beta and Omicron travel bans were so damaging to the country that they suggest that if South Africa identifies another variant it might be – or even should be – tempted to keep it quiet.

“I don’t think that our scientists would conceal any new variants,” Mendelson says. “We (as a profession) are committed to rapid open access of data. If we were to knowingly conceal such a development, I think it would be the end of any credibility the country has and I, for one, would be off.”

Crisp adds: “I suspect that whoever finds another serious variant will be careful about how they announce! … We will announce as before but be clear to warn others that they already have the variant so they should look carefully in their back yard!” Crisp explains.

Even as South Africa looks ahead to the next variant, it is still living with the lingering remnants of the Omicron travel restrictions. Although the big and important tourist sources lifted their restrictions a while ago, some smaller countries took longer.

On 1 March, Italy dropped what many observers felt had been a discriminatory ban on the entry of all tourists from South Africa and other southern African countries.

Tourists from those countries may now visit Italy if they are properly vaccinated, have recovered from Covid or can show negative results of PCR or antigen tests.

On 1 March, Cyprus also lifted its Omicron ban of 26 November 2021 on entry for travellers from SA, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Malawi and Botswana. It also lifted its requirement that returning Cypriots had to undergo 10 days of quarantine at their own expense.

These restrictions had caused considerable inconvenience to travellers, including the parents of a South African businessman who had a nightmare journey home after visiting their son in South Africa in November.

“When my parents, who live in Cyprus, wanted to return home after visiting me in November, they had to spend 10 days in a quarantine hotel, at their cost, in order to be allowed back home. Even after negative PCR tests before and en route in transit.”

His parents were part of a group of seven Cypriots whose plight was reported by the Cypriot news site SigmaLive, which noted that on the way home to Cyprus they were also stuck in Frankfurt Airport overnight because authorities there would not allow them to board their aircraft – or even leave the airport to move to a hotel.

This was all because, when they tried to board, it was found they had failed to fill in the name of their quarantine hotel in Cyprus, SigmaLive said.

In the meantime, their PCR tests expired and they had to get new ones at €260 each. The South African businessman slammed the continuing restrictions then, saying they made no sense when South Africa had much lower infection rates than Europe.

“Most EU countries themselves are considered high risk but as long as negative tests or vaccinations are presented they cannot restrict movement. So an unvaccinated Frenchman may visit Cyprus but my parents would be required to quarantine if they came here for a holiday and returned with a negative test.”

Though many countries have recently lifted restrictions, some still remain. Japan, for example, is still barring all foreign tourists. South Africans may only enter for special purposes such as business, study or employment. They must then produce negative Covid test results. And if they are not vaccinated, they must do a seven-day home quarantine.

Until last month Portugal was still barring all travel from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, except for essential purposes, and then these travellers had to undergo 14 days of official quarantine on arrival in Portugal.

Last month Portugal eased the regulations by dropping the quarantine requirement for essential travel such as for family, business, health, study or humanitarian reasons. These travellers had to present negative PCR or antigen tests.

SA vaccination certificates were not accepted, Portugal said, without explanation.

It also stressed that travel to and from southern Africa was still barred for tourists.

However, David Frost, CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, is not too perturbed by the remaining Covid restrictions on tourist travel to and from SA. He noted that more than 70% of tourist arrivals in SA are from North America and big-market European countries such as the UK, Germany, France and Switzerland, which have lifted their bans and onerous Covid restrictions on tourism to and from South Africa.

“Whereas Portugal represents about 0.5% of tourist arrivals,” Frost said.

Frost’s main concern is that the South African government itself is harming tourism by still demanding that incoming tourists must show negative PCR test results.

“The PCR test requirement remains one of the last impediments to travel,” he said – because of its costs, inconvenience and the perceptions of uncertainty about travel postponement and cancellation should just one member of a travel group test positive.

So PCR tests for, say, a family of six travelling from Germany could be very expensive and also very inconvenient, as it was usually only possible to get a maximum of two tests a week.

Frost said the tourism sector had been lobbying the government for months to allow resident and non-resident travellers to enter SA if they were fully vaccinated and only to demand PCR tests if not fully vaccinated.

He said government had promised that its PCR test requirement even for the fully vaccinated was being reviewed. He had heard that the National Coronavirus Command Council would meet last week to make a recommendation, which the Cabinet would consider at its meeting on 9 March.

But the Cabinet said nothing about it in its statement after the meeting. “So, we are still trying to work out who’s going to make this decision and when,” he said, noting that other regional countries such as Botswana were taking advantage of South Africa’s indecision because they had scrapped the PCR requirement some time ago.

“Our government was righteously indignant with the knee-jerk reaction of governments to Omicron, placing South Africa on red lists overnight without basing the decision on science,” said Frost. Yet Pretoria was now displaying the same sort of intransigence in the face of the scientific and economic reasons to drop the PCR test requirement.

Mendelson agrees. “I don’t think that there is any scientific reason for a PCR test to be necessary for travel to South Africa. Unless we test every citizen and visitor every three to five days, it’s meaningless. We do not have a travel-related surveillance programme and we [wouldn’t] act on it even if we did.”

Frost noted Ireland had just dropped all its Covid travel requirements, returning the country to its pre-Covid status.

Norway has also just abandoned all its Covid travel restrictions as part of a new policy of “living with” Covid, which also entails dropping mask and physical distancing mandates. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Woolworths, Spar, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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