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Kuwait, Arab countries ban nine African nations over new strain

JOHANNESBURG: Airport staff assist travelers at various check-in counters while an electronic flight notice board displays some cancelled flights at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg yesterday, after several countries banned flights from South Africa following the discovery of a new COVID-19 variant Omicron. – AFP

By B Izzak and Agencies

KUWAIT: Kuwait yesterday banned commercial flights with nine African nations over the new COVID-19 variant Omicron but allowed cargo, government spokesman Tareq Al-Mazrem said. The ban begins today and is indefinite. The countries are South Africa, where the new variant was originated, in addition to Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zambia and Malawi.

The Council of Ministers also decided at an extraordinary meeting to ban entry of foreigners from those African countries unless they have spent at least 14 days in a third country. Kuwaiti citizens arriving from those nations must undergo institutional quarantine for seven days with a PCR test done on the day of arrival and a second on the sixth day, Mazrem said. The Council of Ministers also called on citizens to avoid travel out of Kuwait now, unless it is extremely necessary, especially to countries that have reported cases of Omicron.

Fears mounted yesterday that a highly-infectious new coronavirus strain was pushing its way into Europe as the world brought the shutters down to contain the new Omicron variant. Suspected new cases emerged in Germany and the Czech Republic, while Dutch authorities quarantined 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for COVID-19. South Africa complained that it was being “punished” with air travel bans for first detecting the strain, which the World Health Organization has termed a “variant of concern”.

Australia and Thailand joined the United States, Brazil, Canada and a host of other countries around the world restricting travel from the region, fearing a major setback to global efforts against the pandemic. Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant, and whether it can evade existing vaccines.

Anxious travelers thronged Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. Many had cut back holidays and rushed back from South African safaris and vineyards. “It’s ridiculous, we will always be having new variants,” British tourist David Good told AFP, passports in hand. “South Africa found it but it’s probably all over the world already.”

‘Worrisome variant’
But the virus has already slipped through the net with cases in Europe and Hong Kong and Zionist entity. Germany became the second European country to find a suspected case of the new strain, after Belgium on Friday. “The Omicron variant has with strong likelihood already arrived in Germany,” tweeted Kai Klose, social affairs minister in the western state of Hesse.

The neighboring Czech Republic was carrying out further tests on a woman who had travelled from Namibia and was suspected to have the new variant, prime minister Andrej Babis said. The Netherlands meanwhile found that around one in 10 – 61 out of 600 – people who had arrived at Schiphol airport on Friday from South Africa were positive for COVID-19. The rest tested negative. The infected people, who flew in on two KLM flights that took off before the Dutch government announced a ban on travelers from the region, were being kept quarantined in a hotel near the airport.

“The positive test results will be examined as soon as possible to determine whether this concerns the new worrisome variant,” the Dutch Health Authority said in a statement. The Netherlands on Friday became the latest in a series of European countries to tighten its COVID restrictions. The WHO said it could take several weeks to understand the variant, which was initially known as B.1.1.529, and cautioned against imposing travel curbs while scientific evidence was still scant.

‘Draconian’ measures
South Africa has called the travel curbs “Draconian” and yesterday said the flight bans were “akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.” “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. US President Joe Biden meanwhile said richer countries should donate more COVID-19 vaccines and give up intellectual property protections to manufacture more doses worldwide to stem the spread of the virus. “The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,” he said.

But with memories still fresh of the way global air travel helped the spread of COVID after it first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019, countries clamped down on the new variant. Australia became the latest to act, banning all flights from nine southern African countries. Thailand meanwhile restricted flights from eight countries, as did the United States, Brazil, Canada and Saudi Arabia. EU officials agreed in an emergency meeting to urge all 27 nations in the bloc to restrict travel from southern Africa, with many members having already done so.

The World Trade Organization called off its ministerial conference, its biggest gathering in four years, at the last minute Friday due to the new variant. Vaccine manufacturers have held out hope that they can modify current vaccines to target the Omicron variant. Germany’s BioNTech and US drugmaker Pfizer said they expect data “in two weeks at the latest” to show if their jab can be adjusted. Moderna said it will develop a booster specific to the new variant.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia was among countries in the Middle East and North Africa to ban travelers from several African nations due to fears over a new coronavirus variant. The Saudi interior ministry and authorities in the United Arab Emirates said visitors from seven African countries were barred from entry. They listed the countries as South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini.

The Saudi ban comprises flights to and from those countries, the official Saudi Press Agency said, quoting an interior ministry official. It said, however, that foreign nationals from the seven countries could enter the kingdom if they had spent the previous 14 days in another country and comply with Saudi health protocols. The official Emirati news agency WAM said the UAE ban would go into effect on Monday and was only for travelers coming from those African countries, regardless of the airline, and included transit passengers.

Bahrain announced similar measures targeting six African countries, including South Africa, the official BNA news agency said. Jordan’s interior ministry, acting on recommendations from the health ministry, also announced a ban for non-Jordanian travelers coming from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini. The North African kingdom of Morocco banned travelers from those same countries due to fears over the new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa.

 

 

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