JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - South Africa said on Friday that imposing travel restrictions on it because of a newly identified COVID-19 variant was unjustified, after a British ban on flights from southern African countries that others have followed.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla told a media briefing that South Africa was acting with transparency and travel bans were against the norms and standards of the World Health Organization (WHO), which held an emergency meeting over the variant.
Scientists have so far only detected the B.1.1.529 variant in relatively small numbers, mainly in South Africa but also in Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel, but they are concerned by its high number of mutations which could make it vaccine-resistant and more transmissible.
The foreign ministry said South Africa would speak to Britain to try to get it to reconsider its ban, and President Cyril Ramaphosa will convene an advisory council on Sunday to consider evidence on the variant.
"Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries," Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement.
The rand currency slumped as much as 2% against the dollar and South African hospitality stocks plummeted, as investors were unnerved.
Britain said the variant was the most significant found yet after banning flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia. European Union states have also agreed to suspend travel to southern Africa after the detection of a new COVID-19 variant, the presidency of the EU said on Friday.
However, Salim Abdool Karim, one of South Africa's top epidemiologists, said of the new variant that it was "important to deal with it globally," pointing out that the Delta variant had spread to 53 countries within three weeks of it being identified.
"So it doesn't really help to close borders... We've got to find solutions to this variant together. And part of that is not to overreact," he told Reuters in an interview, characterising the British travel ban as a "panic reaction" that was understandable.
The WHO was due to decide on Friday whether to designate the variant as being "of concern," a label only given to four variants to date. But it could take weeks for scientists to fully understand the impact of the variant's mutations.
Scientists expressed frustration at the travel bans, saying the focus should be on getting more people vaccinated in places that have struggled to access sufficient shots.
"This is why we talked about the risk of vaccine apartheid. This virus can evolve in the absence of adequate levels of vaccination. It's upsetting that it takes this to happen to get the point across," Richard Lessells, a South Africa-based infectious disease expert involved in detecting variants, told Reuters.
In South Africa about 35% of adults are fully vaccinated, higher than in most other African nations, but half the government's year-end target. While the continent struggled initially to obtain sufficient doses, some countries including South Africa now have too much stock, with vaccine hesitancy and apathy slowing the inoculation campaign.
South Africa has been the country worst affected in Africa in terms of total reported COVID-19 cases and deaths, with nearly 3 million infections and more than 89,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic. It had been experiencing a lull after a severe third wave of infections, until last week when new infections started to pick up.
On Thursday, it reported 2,465 new cases, almost double the previous day's number. Although the country's communicable diseases institute did not link the resurgence to the B.1.1.529 variant, leading local scientists suspect it is the cause.
(Additional reporting by Wendell Roelf, Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo and Emma Rumney in Johannesburg; Editing by John Stonestreet, Frances Kerry and Toby Chopra)