Antony Blinken Calls Omicron Discovery, Transparency by South Africa 'Model for the World'

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised South Africa's efforts to quickly identify and alert the world about the new Omicron variant.

During a Saturday call with South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor, Blinken said he appreciates the South African government's transparency in delivering news about the new COVID variant.

"Secretary Blinken specifically praised South Africa's scientists for the quick identification of the Omicron variant and South Africa's government for its transparency in sharing this information, which should serve as a model for the world," the Department of State said in a statement.

The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa and was deemed by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a virus strain of "concern."

Antony Blinken Calls Omicron Discovery
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken praised South Africa’s efforts to quickly identify and alert the world about the new Omicron variant. Above, a medical staff member prepares a syringe with a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech (Comirnaty) Covid-19 vaccine, in the Lyon Gerland vaccination center, on November 27. Photo by JEFF PACHOUD/AFP via Getty Images

On Saturday, over a dozen countries announced temporary travel restrictions on South Africa and seven other nations in the region after some cases were reported in several parts of the world.

The South African foreign ministry denounced the move on Saturday, criticizing their fast decisions to ban travel instead of adopting a wait-and-see approach.

The WHO encouraged "world leaders not to engage in knee-jerk reactions and cautioned against the imposition of travel restrictions," the foreign ministry said.

"This latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker. Excellent science should be applauded and not punished," the ministry's statement read. "The global community needs collaboration and partnerships in the management of the COVID-19 pandemic."

South Africa's COVID protocols, including "ramped-up" vaccinations and preventing COVID patients from leaving the country, should give other nations the "comfort" that the country is managing the pandemic, the ministry added.

Additionally, the South African foreign minister pointed out the impact of travel restrictions on the economy.

"We need to remember that this pandemic requires collaboration and sharing of expertise. Our immediate concern is the damage that these restrictions are causing to families, the travel and tourism industries and business," Pandor said in the statement.

Similarly, South Africa's health minister, Joe Phaahla, condemned travel restrictions on Friday, calling them a "draconian reaction," according to The Guardian.

"The reaction of countries to impose travel bans are completely against the norms and standards as guided by the World Health Organization," the health minister said.

The travel bans have also been scrutinized by other officials in South Africa, who argued that the country should be supported rather than excluded.

"The world should provide support to South Africa and Africa and not discriminate or isolate it! By protecting and supporting it, we will protect the world! A plea for billionaires and financial institutions," Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, wrote in a statement shared to Twitter.

The chairperson of the South African Medical Association, Angelique Coetzee, echoed Oliveira's remarks, telling BBC Friday that those travel restrictions were "premature."

Scott Gottlieb, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also criticized the decision after President Joe Biden announced travel restrictions that will go into effect on Monday.

"It's counterproductive in short and long run, however, to impose harsh travel restrictions on affected countries; hurting current containment efforts, discouraging future sharing," he said in a statement shared to Twitter.