PRETTORIA, November 28. /TASS/. Crowds of foreign tourists flocked to South African airports on Saturday, trying to urgently leave the country following reports that a new highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 variant named ‘omicron’ was identified there.
"Numerous and unexpected flight cancellations by many air carriers created significant difficulties for us," a Johannesburg airport source told TASS on Saturday. "This afternoon, one of the largest air carriers in the South African airspace, Qatar Airways, grounded all flights. As a result, thousands of tourists and vacationers found themselves in a difficult situation, because their flights have been cancelled.
The new omicron strain of the novel coronavirus is spreading in South Africa. It has already been identified in individuals, who returned from the southern African region to the United Kingdom and Germany in the past 24 hours. In a separate development, 61 out of 600 people, who arrived to the Netherlands aboard two flights, were diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. The local News-24 portal described the situation in South African airports as "total chaos."
The United Kingdom was the first to announce the suspension of air service with South Africa late on November 25. By now, more than 20 countries have already followed suit. Tourists who are trying to leave South Africa are boarding flights of regional African airlines, which take them to other capitals on the continent, such as Addis Ababa (Ethiopia), Cairo (Egypt) and Dakar (Senegal).
At the same time, embassies accredited in South Africa, including the Russian diplomatic mission, stopped short of recommending their citizens and employees to leave the country.
So far, 150 people have been diagnosed with the omicron strain of the novel coronavirus in South Africa. Its health ministry has already warned that the country was entering the fourth wave of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated the B.1.1.529 variant as a "Variant of Concern" and assigned it the Greek letter Omicron. It also said that the new variant has "a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning." "Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs," it said.
The data on the new SARS-CoV-2 variant, B.1.1.529, which was identified in the south of Africa, was put on the international database GISAID on November 22.
The WHO expressed concern over reports from South Africa about the rapid spread of the infection in the densely-populated Gauteng province, which may indicate the strain’s high transmissibility. Several countries have suspended air service with South Africa and other countries in the south of Africa.