New Delhi | Jagran News Desk: The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Friday named the B.1.1.529 variant of COVID-19, which was detected first in South Africa, as 'Omicron', calling it a 'variant of concern'. Though the global health body said that Omicron's actual risks still need to be understood, it classified it as a "highly transmissible virus of concern", the same category which includes the Delta variant.

"This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning," the WHO said in a statement. "Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs."

The Omicron variant of COVID-19 has caused concerns across the world, forcing countries to impose travel bans on South Africa. However, South Africa has called the restrictions on its travellers "unjustified", saying they against the norms and standards of the WHO.

"Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries," South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement, as reported by Reuters.

Experts have also said that travel restrictions won't help in controlling the spread of the infection, but would only "buy time for new public health measures to be put in place". "Travel restrictions can delay but not prevent the spread of a highly transmissible variant," The Associated Press quoted Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, as saying.

Experts believe that South Africa should not be penalised "for alerting the world to the new variant". They said that the "surveillance is so good in South Africa and other nearby countries that they found this (new variant), understood it was a problem and told the world very fast about it".

The experts have also said that decisions on travel restrictions are "political and not scientific". "It’s possible to keep infection out, but you would need very, very severe restrictions and only some countries would be willing to do this," The Associated Press quoted Sharon Peacock of the University of Cambridge as saying.

"Buying time is important and worthwhile, but this is a decision for policymakers," Peacock said, "at the moment, we won’t have any definitive scientific answers for a few weeks".

Full list of countries that have imposed travel restrictions on South Africa:

USA: The United States of America (USA) will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region from Monday. However, the US government has clarified that the ban will not be imposed on US citizens or permanent residents who have tested negative.

UK: The United Kingdom (UK) has also imposed a travel ban on South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho and Zimbabwe.

European Union: The EU has imposed a complete travel ban on South Africa, saying all flight operations will be "suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant, and travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules".

Canada: Canada has banned the entry of foreign travellers who have been to South Africa in the last 14 days.

Australia: Australis has imposed a ban on travellers from South Africa, Seychelles, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Malawi, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.

Saudi Arabia: The kingdom has suspended all flight operations from South Africa, Mozambique, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Eswatini.

Brazil: Brazil has imposed a travel ban on South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Eswatini, Botswana and Lesotho.

What is India doing?

India has issued an alert over the new variant of COVID-19, asking all states and union territories (UTs) that all travellers entering India from "at-risk" countries need to be "screened, tested and closely tracked".

"This variant is reported to have a significantly high number of mutations, and thus, has serious public health implications for the country, in view of recently relaxed visa restrictions and opening up of international travel," said Union Health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan in his letter to all states and UTs.

Posted By: Aalok Sensharma