The region is on alert after Uganda confirmed the first cases of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. This comes even as the US placed Tanzania, alongside five other countries, on its red list, warning its citizens against travel over Covid-19 infection fears.
Uganda now joins 10 other countries in Africa where the Omicron variant has been detected. They include South Africa, Botswana, Nigeria, Ghana, Zambia, Senegal, Tunisia, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe, according to the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC)
On Tuesday, Uganda Health minister Jane Ruth Aceng said seven travellers had tested positive for the variant after landing at the Entebbe airport.
Dr Aceng said the variant was detected in travellers from South Africa (two) and Nigeria (five), who arrived in Uganda more than a week ago, raising fears that the virus could have already spread to many more people in the country.
The minister said the travellers have been isolated, adding that they were not severely ill, but needed monitoring.
The Omicron variant has been designated as a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and presents with some deletions and more than 30 mutations that could make it more infectious or improve its ability to evade antibodies.
Ugandan health officials said the first test done at the Entebbe International Airport on arrival confirmed the travellers had Covid-19, but further testing showed the new variant, which has caused panic across the globe.
Last week, Uganda said it would carry out genomic sequencing on all samples, which takes five to eight days.
“As the number of Omicron cases increases globally, there is a need for near real-time genomic surveillance to keep track of emerging and circulating variants for the effective control of the SARS-CoV-2 epidemic,” the Uganda Virus Research Institute said in a statement.
On Tuesday, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) put Tanzania, France, Portugal, Andorra, Cyprus, Jordan and Litchtenstein under its high risk countries.
“Avoid travel to Tanzania,” CDC said in its latest notice, adding that, if one must travel they should make sure they are fully vaccinated.
“Because of the current situation in Tanzania, even fully vaccinated travellers may be at risk for getting and spreading Covid-19 variants,” the CDC said.
The alert even comes as the US Embassy in Dar es Salaam warned that community transmission continues across Tanzania.
“Healthcare facilities in Tanzania can become quickly overwhelmed in a healthcare crisis,” the US embassy said, asking its citizens to continue exercising caution in day-to-day activities despite Tanzania opening up all the sectors of the economy and society.
Since the first spread of the pandemic in Tanzania, fingers have been pointed at the country for its poor mitigation and control measures against the pandemic that has already claimed over 5.26 million deaths worldwide.
On Sunday, it emerged that a traveller from Tanzania had tested positive for Omicron in India, prompting authorities to ‘start investigations’.
“The government is promoting mitigation measures such as hand washing, masks and social distancing but public compliance remains low,” the US embassy in Dar es Salaam said.
On Wednesday, the AU called for the urgent rescinding of travel bans placed on southern African countries.
“Current evidence, which underscores global spread and community transmission of the Omicron variant, does not support selective travel bans imposed on Southern African countries,” the AU statement read.
It said penalising African countries for timely and transparent data dissemination acts as a disincentive for information sharing and slows down urgent research.
The African Airlines Association also condemned the travel bans saying they amount to stigmatisation. It is now calling on all countries that have issued unilateral travel restriction to revoke them and instead seek collaborative measures that will address the Covid challenge holistically.
“Why target Africa when the virus is reported in other regions as well? Any attempts to stigmatise Africa through travel bans will not work. We should not confuse politics with science,” said Mr Berthé.
“Even from South Africa, the infection does not seem to be severe. It is mild and not so much among the vaccinated people,” she said,
“The Omicron variant is now detected in several regions of the world, yet the travel bans seem to be targeted at Africa. This is an affront to the global efforts to find an enduring solution. We will be better off confronting the virus if we work together for solutions and avoid discrimination,” said Mr Berthé.