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Travellers walk through Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport Nov. 30, 2021.REMKO DE WAAL/AFP/Getty Images

Growing evidence suggests that the new coronavirus variant Omicron has already begun to spread in the community in some European countries, making border closures ineffective and intensifying the demands for an end to travel bans.

The latest laboratory tests from Britain and The Netherlands revealed that Omicron was present in those countries before the first bans were imposed on travellers from southern Africa last week, while a test in Germany discovered the variant in a person with no travel history.

The mounting evidence of community transmission in Europe has raised further doubts about the travel-restriction strategy that many countries – including Canada – have chosen.

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The news from Europe is sparking anger in southern Africa, where the travel bans have had a disastrous effect on already battered economies. The bans are a “grand exhibition of futility and discrimination,” said Marc Mendelson, head of the infectious diseases division at a Cape Town hospital, in a tweet on Tuesday.

Health officials in The Netherlands announced on Tuesday that the new COVID-19 variant had been confirmed in samples dating as early as Nov. 19 – a week before the flight bans.

The country’s RIVM health institute said it had found Omicron in samples from Nov. 19 and 23. The presence of the variant in the samples was discovered in tests on Monday, the institute said. “It is not yet clear whether these people had visited southern Africa,” it said.

In Scotland, authorities disclosed that they had detected Omicron in nine people who were linked to a single event that took place on Nov. 20, six days before the travel bans. None of the nine people had recently travelled to southern Africa or had been in contact with anyone who had recently travelled there, the officials said.

In Germany, authorities said they had confirmed an Omicron case in an individual who had neither been abroad or had been in contact with any travellers. And in Belgium, according to earlier reports, a case of Omicron was detected in a traveller who had returned from Egypt on Nov. 11 and had no connection to southern Africa.

Many South Africans voiced outrage at the latest reports on Tuesday. They said the evidence of community transmission in Europe was proof that the travel bans were unfair punishment of southern African countries, where the variant was first detected by scientists in Botswana and South Africa last week.

Many people in these countries have already lost jobs or businesses, or were forced to cancel long-delayed reunions with family members, as a result of the travel bans. The tourism industry, a crucial job-creator in all of the southern African countries, has been severely damaged as a result of the travel restrictions.

Prof. Mendelson, who works at Groote Schuur Hospital and the University of Cape Town, said the bans should be reversed. “Not only are they pointless, but they are needlessly decimating economies, exacerbating societal distress and having a profound effect on families that are once again being parted,” he said.

The new variant has triggered a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases in Gauteng province, the economic heartland of South Africa, where the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria are located.

This surge, in turn, is driving a significant national increase in cases, which seems to be the beginning of a fourth wave of the pandemic. On Tuesday, officials reported 4,373 new cases of COVID-19 in South Africa. This represented a positivity rate of 10.2 per cent. Barely a week ago, the positivity rate in South Africa was only about 2 per cent.

The World Health Organization, in an advisory issued on Tuesday, said travel bans will not prevent the international spread of the new variant, and will place “a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods.” In addition, the bans could damage global health efforts during a pandemic by discouraging countries from reporting and sharing their data on new variants and cases, the WHO said.

The agency’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, thanked South Africa and Botswana for detecting, sequencing and reporting the new variant as rapidly as they did.

“It is deeply concerning to me that those countries are now being penalized by others for doing the right thing,” Dr. Tedros said in a briefing for the agency’s member states on Tuesday in Geneva.

“I am equally concerned that several member states are introducing blunt, blanket measures that are not evidence-based or effective on their own, and which will only worsen inequities,” he said.

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