African Nations Criticize the West for Hoarding Vaccines as Wealthy Countries Quickly Cut Off South Africa After Discovery of New Omicron Coronavirus Variant

Travelers checking a flight information board at Johannesburg’s international airport on Saturday. Many countries have banned travelers from southern Africa since the discovery of a new variant. (Credit…Joao Silva/The New York Times)

Nations in southern Africa protested bitterly on Saturday as more of the world’s wealthiest countries cut them off from travel, renewing a debate over border closures from the earliest days of the coronavirus pandemic and compounding the problems facing poorly vaccinated countries.

A new coronavirus variant called Omicron, first detected in Botswana, put governments on edge after South Africa announced a surge of cases this week, plunging countries into the most uncertain moment of the pandemic since the highly contagious Delta variant took hold this spring.

As in the early days of Delta, political alarm spread quickly across the world, with officials trading blame over how the failures of the global vaccination effort were allowing the virus to mutate, even as researchers warned that the true threat of the new variant was not yet clear.

Bearing a worrying number of mutations that researchers fear could make it spread easily, Omicron was spotted on Saturday in patients in Britain, Germany and Italy, leaving in its wake what scientists estimated to be thousands of cases in southern Africa and tens or hundreds more globally. One nation after another shut its doors to southern Africa even as they spurned public health measures that scientists said were far more urgently needed to take on the new variant.

Australia, Thailand and Sri Lanka were among the latest countries on Saturday to join the United States, Britain and the European Union in banning travelers from South Africa and nearby countries.

Israel announced the world’s strictest ban to date, sealing its borders to all foreigners for 14 days after one case was confirmed in the country.

“The key here is caution and minimal risks until we know more,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennet of Israel said at a news conference just after midnight local time on Sunday.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Benjamin Mueller and Declan Walsh