As It Happens

South African vaccine expert says travel bans against the country are 'hypocritical'

The discovery of a new COVID-19 variant has led countries around the world to restrict travel from southern African countries, but the restrictions won't prevent the variant from spreading says a South African vaccination expert.

Shabir Madhi accused countries of 'congratulating South Africa on its science' then 'stabbing it in the back'

Dr. Shabir Madhi says travel bans targeting specific countries will ultimately prove to be ineffective at stopping the spread of the new COVID-19 variant. (CBC)

Story Transcript

The discovery of a new coronavirus variant has led countries around the world to restrict travel from southern African countries, but the restrictions won't prevent the variant from spreading, says a South African vaccination expert.

The omicron variant was first detected by South Africa last week. The World Health Organization has labelled it a variant of concern. It has since been detected in Ottawa and Quebec.

All foreign nationals who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini or Mozambique in the last 14 days are barred from entering Canada. As of Tuesday, Japan's borders will be closed to foreigners, joining Israel with the world's toughest travel restrictions.

It's not yet clear whether omicron is more contagious or resistant to COVID-19 vaccines than other variants, but Dr. Shabir Madhi says most cases detected so far have been mild.  

Madhi is the director of the vaccines program and dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What's your message to Canada as we hit the brakes on travel from South Africa in response to the Omicron variant?

I think the main thing is to learn from the past almost two years now, that restricting travel from a few countries is not going to prevent the importation of the variant. If you're wanting to truly prevent the importation of this variant that was first identified in South Africa, you literally would need to shut your borders to the rest of the world, similar to what Israel is embarking on.

To believe that you can just limit travel from a few countries basically defies logic, in that other nationalities that are still travelling to South Africa that are still allowed into Canada will eventually bring the virus into Canada, either directly or indirectly.

Passengers wait to board international flights amidst the spread of the new coronavirus variant Omicron, at O.R. Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Sunday. (Sumaya Hisham/Reuters)

But isn't it just a one step in a program? Isn't it just one thing that the countries are doing in addition to others, that might be of some effect?

No, certainly not. The science actually shows that this sort of a strategy simply might delay the importation of the variant, but certainly doesn't prevent the importation of the variant. So the question is: What are you trying to achieve?

In addition to which, I think we need to be clear about what threat this variant actually does pose. The current experience from South Africa clearly indicates that this variant is not necessarily more virulent ... than previous variants. In addition to which, most of the infections that have transpired up until now have only resulted in mild infection.

I just [want] to ask you a question about South Africa's way of sequencing and tracing the disease. It has been lauded for having very good science on this from the very beginning, very close monitoring of the disease. And that was how your country was able to send out this alert about the omicron variant. Do you feel, at some point, that you're being a victim of your own success by alerting the world?

Absolutely. It's of little comfort when world leaders are congratulating South Africa on its science and then at the same time, stabbing it in the back for actually informing the world about the evolution of this variant. I think that's actually hypocritical.

Instead of isolating South Africa and other southern African countries, they should be doing what is necessary to actually prevent [these] sort[s] of occurrences taking place in areas where they don't have enough access to vaccines.

And unfortunately, Canada is one of [these] countries that is guilty of not actually fulfilling promises to provide vaccines to low- and middle-income countries and instead hoarding vaccines and using it for purposes which are less important than saving lives, and as an example, providing vaccines to children.

We as people, health-care workers included, in Africa are going unvaccinated because of an inability to access vaccines.

A man pushes a baggage cart wearing a face mask at Toronto Pearson International Airport in 2020. Countries around the world are putting in travel restrictions for countries in southern Africa after a new coronavirus variant was detected in South Africa. (Carlos Osorio/Reuters)

But is it not the case that South Africa has nearly 20 million doses of vaccines made by Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson? ....Your country has asked both those pharmaceutical companies to suspend their deliveries of further vaccines because you're not able to use them [because] there is such a low uptake, such a low demand for the vaccines. Is that not the case?

That is the case.

But this variant hasn't ... necessarily evolved in South Africa. We need to be clear about that. In fact, the first identification of the variant was in Botswana, which also doesn't mean it evolved in Botswana. This variant could have evolved anywhere on the African continent.

The reason it was first identified in South Africa is because of our sequencing capabilities and capacity. So what's happening in South Africa is an issue of a poor vaccine uptake at the moment, which is unfortunate. But that is not the case for the rest of Africa ... where less than five per cent of sub-Saharan Africans have been vaccinated.

It's an issue of inequity, of distribution of vaccine. So the more people that are left unvaccinated, the greater the likelihood that we're going to continue experiencing the evolution of these sort of mutations, which results in variants.

Symptoms of new variant tend to be mild so far, South African doctor says

2 months ago
Duration 10:13
Most patients who are testing positive for the new coronavirus variant are young and can be treated at home, says Dr. Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and a member of South Africa's vaccine advisory committee. 10:13

You have a very low vaccination rate among your young people in South Africa. And we're seeing ... an uptick of cases of this new variant among those young people. Is that an issue for for your country right now?

Actually, that's not our priority. So the main purpose of vaccines in the context of South Africa — and it should be [in] the context of the globe — is one of using vaccines primarily to prevent hospitalization and death. And that is a priority of vaccines. And that is why vaccines were developed, and vaccines prevent infection and mild disease. That's a good to have. And when it prevents transmission, it's even something better to have.

But the main focus is around ensuring that those populations and those groups of individuals that are at high risk of dying of COVID-19 and of ending up in hospital are protected. And those are generally people above the age of 50, in which case in South Africa, the coverage in that particular age group demographic is about 55 per cent.

So South Africa, unlike many high-income countries that are sort of aspiring to minimize the number of infections that they taking place by vaccinating extremely young children, that is not the goal of vaccination in the countries such as South Africa or the rest of the continent. It's about protecting those that are most susceptible to ending up in hospital or dying of COVID 19.


Written by Andrea Bellemare with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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