“South Africa was a beacon of transparency when it came to Omicron” – with insight from The Wall Street Journal

When it comes to medical research, South Africa is at the forefront of innovation. After all, as The Wall Street Journal reminds us, the first-ever heart transplant was performed here, in 1967. When virologists and medical experts first identified the Omicron variant – and alerted the rest of the world to its existence – countries across the globe reacted unfairly and, instead of praising South Africa’s transparency, implemented travel bans just ahead of the country’s busiest tourism season. President Biden recently announced that the United States will rescind Covid-19 travel bans on South Africa and several neighbouring states. “By the time the travel ban was instituted on Nov. 26, it was clear that the Omicron variant not only had spread widely in Africa but had already reached the U.S. and the European Union. The EU has yet to remove its travel restrictions, a punishing political strategy with no scientific basis.” Below, Marc Siegel writes the US could do well to learn from South Africa, which should have been praised instead of punished. South Africa recently announced amendments to protocol surrounding Covid-19 infection and close contacts. The government announced quarantine for close contacts would come to an end, while isolation ended for all but those showing symptoms. Just five days later, though, the South African government has recalled the new quarantine and isolation policies. “Quarantine reverts to 10 days for close contacts. If you test positive but are asymptomatic, you must isolate for 10 days from positive test result. If you have Covid-19 symptoms and/or test positive, you should isolate for 10 days from start of symptoms.” – Jarryd Neves

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South Africa Sets a Covid Example

The now-lifted U.S. travel ban sent an unfortunate message.

President Biden announced last week that the U.S. will lift Covid-19 travel restrictions on South Africa and seven neighboring countries, effective Friday. By the time the travel ban was instituted on Nov. 26, it was clear that the Omicron variant not only had spread widely in Africa but had already reached the U.S. and the European Union. The EU has yet to remove its travel restrictions, a punishing political strategy with no scientific basis.

When it comes to science, South Africa is at the forefront of genetic surveillance and viral structural analysis. The country has a stellar medical research community; the first heart transplant was performed there in 1967. South Africa was a beacon of transparency when it came to Omicron, the opposite of China’s behavior at the beginning of the pandemic. That makes it especially unfortunate that the U.S. and EU singled out South Africa, and at the heart of its summer tourist season. The message: being forthcoming on behalf of science led to punishment rather than reward.

Waasila Jassat—a public-health specialist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases in Johannesburg and leader of daily hospital surveillance for Covid-19 told me in an interview on SiriusXM’s “Doctor Radio” that she and her fellow researchers would do it all over. South Africa’s handling of Covid is an example to the world in putting science over politics.

South Africa’s scientific community warned at the beginning of the pandemic that this coronavirus was a “ticking time bomb” in Africa because of the continent’s weak health systems. It’s at the forefront now, with the emergence of Omicron, as scientists there were the first to observe that this variant, though milder, also escaped at least some of the immune system’s defenses. Alex Sigal’s lab at the Africa Health Research Institute in Durban has found evidence that Omicron infection enhances neutralizing immunity against the more virulent Delta variant. That will help push Delta out, another path toward ending the pandemic.

Dr. Jassat said she believes a combination of immunity from prior infection and a growing number of vaccinated people in Guateng province (over 50%), combined with immunity from the newly infected to cause the outbreak to subside quickly. We can expect the same thing to happen in the U.S. especially when you consider that the vast majority of mild or asymptomatic cases go unreported. Omicron is highly contagious but also appears to be milder in most cases than prior variants, with a much lower risk of hospitalization. That means Omicron may end the pandemic by leaving a blanket of immunity in its wake.

Here in the U.S. we could do well to learn from Dr. Jassat and her brethren the importance of calm courage in the face of a weakening virus. South Africa should have been praised rather than punished.

Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Health and a Fox News medical correspondent.

Appeared in the December 29, 2021, print edition.

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