Home U.S South Africa's UN representative calls Biden's Omicron travel ban unfair

South Africa's UN representative calls Biden's Omicron travel ban unfair

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A representative of South Africa called President Joe Biden’s travel ban ‘unfair’ and urged the United States to share more of its vaccine supply as the Omicron variant of COVID spreads around the world.

‘We feel that the travel ban is very unfair,’ Xolisa Mabhongo, the deputy permanent representative of South Africa to the United Nations told CNN’s New Day Tuesday morning. ‘South African science should be commended for discovering this new variant and sharing the information with the world.’ 

The United States travel ban went into affect on Monday. Biden argued the ban would buy scientists time to learn more about Omicron, which the World Health Organization said is highly transmissible and a ‘variant of concern.’

The president also argued the best protection against Omicron is being fully vaccinated, getting the booster shot and wearing a face mask. The CDC has expanded booster guidelines to include all adult Americans. 

But Stephane Bancel, chief executive at vaccine maker Moderna, warned it will take months to develop an Omicron-specific booster, possibly to summer 2022.  

Xolisa Mabhongo, the deputy permanent representative of South Africa to the United Nations, called President Joe Biden's travel ban 'unfair'

Xolisa Mabhongo, the deputy permanent representative of South Africa to the United Nations, called President Joe Biden’s travel ban ‘unfair’

And Mabhongo stressed the importance of vaccine equity in all countries in order to ‘see the end of COVID.’  

‘As long as the world operates on this trajectory on vaccine inequality, we will not see the end of COVID,’ he said. ‘We think it is not wise to continue in this route, we think vaccines should be shared by all countries.’

‘At this moment, less than 10% of the African population as a whole has been vaccinated, but we know that in other countries the rate is over 80%. So, this is indeed very unfair, and we have been urging countries to reverse it,’ he said.

The Biden administration argues the United States is one of the biggest distributors of COVID vaccines, pointing out the U.S. has shipped over 275 million doses of vaccines to 110 countries around the world. 

That number includes 93.9 million for Africa alone, and 13.3 million to the countries restricted by the travel ban – Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. 

But Mabhongo argued more is needed.  

‘We do need more vaccines for sure, that is not a question. We need more vaccines in South Africa, in southern African and in the rest of the African continent,’ he said. 

Meanwhile, scientists say it will take two weeks to truly work out how effective jabs are against Omicron, which has twice as many mutations on its spike protein as Delta. 

The strain is expected to make current vaccines significantly weaker at preventing infections, but it’s less clear how it will impact hospitalizations and deaths.  

Biden said at a White House press conference Monday: ‘We do not yet believe that additional measures will be needed’ to combat Omicron.

‘But so that we are prepared if needed, my team is already working with officials at Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson to develop contingency plans for vaccines or boosters if needed.’

Moderna alongside other vaccine manufacturers is working on a tweaked version of their jab to fight the Omicron variant. 

But scientists say it could take 100 days before it is available.

 

President Biden placed a travel ban on eight African nations; it went into effect on Monday

President Biden placed a travel ban on eight African nations; it went into effect on Monday

The ban was in response to the discovery of the new Omicron variant of COVID

The ban was in response to the discovery of the new Omicron variant of COVID

Omicron, which was first identified in South Africa but is thought to have originated in Botswana, is the most-mutated form of the coronavirus yet found. 

The variant could could lead to more infections among vaccinated people but they will most likely remain protected from severe illness, BioNTech SE co-founder Ugur Sahin, the inventor of one of the first COVID-19 vaccines, told the Wall Street Journal. 

‘Our message is: Don’t freak out, the plan remains the same: Speed up the administration of a third booster shot,’ Dr. Sahin said. 

He said he expects vaccinated people will have a high degree of protection against Omicron and other variants.

The vaccines provide to layers of protection against COVID: the first involves antibodies, which prevent people from becoming infected in the first place by preventing viruses from colonizing healthy cells in the body; and the second involves T-cells, immune cells in the body that mobilize to destroy infected cells after an infection has occurred.

Antibodies can start to fade about five months after the second dose Omicron is likely to be better at circumventing the antibodies generated from the vaccine, Dr. Sahin said.

Meanwhile, President Biden applauded South Africa for quickly disclosing the variant, saying ‘this kind of transparency is to be encouraged and applauded because it increases our ability to respond quickly to any new threats. And that’s exactly what we did.’

‘This variant is a cause for concern, not a cause for panic,’ he said. 

And he said if updated vaccinations or boosters are needed to respond to Omicron, ‘we will accelerate their development and deployment with every available tool.’ 

The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body's immune system struggles to recognise it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body's cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness

The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system struggles to recognise it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness 

South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said the variant is fueling a surge in coronavirus hospitalizations in hot spots within the country. Gauteng, the province where the COVID-19 variant was first detected has suffered a more than 300 percent increase in virus related hospitalizations this week.

The number of children hospitalized with Covid has also risen sharply around South African’s capital city of Pretoria, though the NICD said not all are at risk of severe disease and some cases could just be out of an abundance of caution.

When Biden addressed the country on Monday he said: ‘You have to get your vaccine. You have to get the shot. You have to get the booster.’

‘Sooner or later we’re going to see new cases of this variant here in the United States,’ Biden predicted.

There have been five cases identified in Canada. 

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