First Omicron BA.4, now BA.5 found in travellers from SA to New Zealand – but bans seem unlikely

Business Insider SA

News analysis

  • New Zealand found three cases of the Omicron BA.5 sub-variant in travellers from South Africa, it reported this weekend.
  • A week ago it reported its first case of BA.4 – also from South Africa.
  • Those two sub-variants now make up all of SA's infections, and are driving a new wave here.
  • But, unlike when the original Omicron was first discovered in South Africa, it is probably too late to impose travel bans, even if any country had an appetite for such measures.
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South Africa is now confirmed to be an active exporter of both new Omicron sub-variants, BA.4 and BA.5 – but even countries that had some of the harshest border measures in 2021 seem unlikely to repeat history, and impose travel restrictions on South Africa.

On the weekend, authorities in New Zealand announced first one, then two more confirmed cases of BA.5 in that country

"Following the first BA.5 case reported on Sunday, there are now three people who are confirmed to have the variant, all of whom travelled from South Africa," said the New Zealand ministry of health

On 1 May, New Zealand reported its first known case of BA.4. That sub-variant too had been detected in a traveller from South Africa.

Known as "Fortress New Zealand" for parts of the pandemic, that country has just cracked open its borders again. But it has no current plans to tighten domestic restrictions or travel rules, and there seems little prospect that it will impose specific restrictions on South Africa.

That is the attitude in all countries South Africans tend to travel to most often, much in contrast with what happened when the original Omicron variant was first described by South African scientists.

The slamming-shut of borders after that announcement cost South Africa billions, and the impact on travellers from South Africa lingered for months. The harsh measures also seemed to do little to nothing to slow the spread of Omicron; evidence continues to emerge that the variant was by that point spreading fast in many parts of the world, and that South Africa was effectively punished for its excellent genomic surveillance.

Early detection of BA.4 and BA.5 is again seeing South Africa closely watched.

This time the sub-variants have been detected in places in Europe, and cases were being counted in several states in the USA, even as the World Health Organisation cautioned that is was still too soon to tell how BA.4 and BA.5 would impact health systems.

At the same time, countries that previously imposed sudden and draconian travel restrictions, such as the United Kingdom, continue to dismantle their domestic Covid-19 restrictions as they move towards an express goal of "living with Covid". Most normalised travel in time for the traditional Easter holidays, and have promised citizens their first northern-hemisphere summer of freedom.

For now, that seems to include the freedom to travel to and from South Africa.

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