Kenya will make a decision today on whether to join the US and EU member States in imposing new travel restrictions on South Africa and seven other southern African countries due to a highly infectious new coronavirus strain.
Director-General for Health Patrick Amoth said Kenya’s reaction to the new Covid-19 variant, which spread rapidly and can be transmitted between fully vaccinated people, will be known today.
South Africa has protested against the flight bans, terming them "unjustified" and “punishment” for its scientific transparency.
Kenya’s reaction comes days after President Uhuru Kenyatta made an official visit to South Africa with the aim of boosting trade between the two countries, culminating in the inking of eight bilateral deals.
The deals offer local businesses more opportunities to increase trading and swing trade fortunes that have for years been in favour of South Africa.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) earlier declared the new variant to be "of concern", naming it Omicron amid growing international panic about the strain, which scientists believe is more transmissible and has an increased risk of reinfection.
US officials said flights from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi will be blocked, mirroring earlier moves taken by the EU and the UK. The ban comes into effect today.
"We will issue a direction on the matter come Monday," said Dr Amoth in a phone interview with the Business Daily.
There are tens of direct flights monthly from South Africa to Kenya, underlying the importance of the route to carriers like Kenya Airways.
The Omicron variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on November 24 and has since been identified in other countries.
Scientists say they have much to learn about the virus’s new mutations and the WHO has said it will take a few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant, as experts work to determine how transmissible it is.
The WHO on Friday said preliminary evidence suggested the new variant carried a higher risk of reinfection than other variants.
Scientists have said it is the most heavily mutated version yet, which means Covid vaccines, which were designed using the original strain from Wuhan, China, may not be as effective.
South Africa, the country worst hit on the continent by the pandemic with almost 90,000 official deaths, has more laboratories and scientists tracking mutations than any other African nation.
This makes it more likely that it will discover variants of concern, but it has also put it first in line for global restrictions.
The threats from the infectious strain come in a period that has seen Kenya report falling infection rates with less than five percent of tests each day proving positive in recent weeks.
This prompted the country to lift a nationwide curfew on October 20 that had been in place since March 2020 to curb the spread of the disease.
Kenya’s economy, like others, has been hit by the pandemic, as restrictions to curb its spread reduced revenues and stifled growth.
Economic output contracted for the first time in nearly three decades last year, hurt by the impact of the virus crisis on key sectors like tourism.
Growth slid to negative 0.3 percent last year from 5.0 percent in 2019.
Recovery has started, but there have been fears the pace could be hit by a shortage of Covid-19 vaccines and new waves of infections.
The Central Bank of Kenya (CBK) expects the economy to grow by 6.1 percent this year and 5.6 percent in 2022.