Rwanda has become the first East African nation to suspend direct flights between Kigali and southern African countries following last week’s discovery of Omicron, a new Covid-19 variant.
The country has also imposed a seven-day quarantine for passengers arriving in Kigali who have recently been to countries affected by the coronavirus variant.
A statement from the Office of the Prime Minister said Rwanda was doing this to contain the new variant detected in South Africa and neighbouring countries last week.
Rwanda now joins the European Union, the United States, Israel, United Arab Emirates, the UK, among other nations, that have suspended flights to southern Africa.
The southern African countries affected by the ban are South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi
“People attending events/gatherings, including conferences, concerts, weddings, festivals or exhibitions, must be fully vaccinated and tested,” said the statement.
The new variant, known as B.1.1.529 or Omicron, has 32 mutations which makes it highly transmissible and with the potential for vaccine escape.
Health experts say it is the “worst one we’ve seen so far”, and there is concern it has the potential to evade immunity.
No cases of the new variant have been confirmed in the country so far.
As of last week Friday, only 59 cases had been identified in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong where it was first detected.
Experts have already warned the new variant could be problematic because its genetic composition makes it more transmissible
“It looks like this particular variant has a very concerning set of mutations especially on the spike protein, which is needed for its transmission properties as well as its protection against the vaccine,” Pasi Penttinen, a public emergency response manager at the European Centres for Disease Prevention and Control told the CNBC on Friday.
South Africa, which is currently feeling punished for its scientific transparency, is among the worst hit in the continent by the pandemic with almost 90,000 official deaths.
The country has more laboratories and scientists tracking mutations than other African nations.
This makes it more likely that it will discover variants of concern, but it has also put it first in line for global restrictions.
Marc Mendelson, professor of infectious diseases at Groote Schuur hospital at the University of Cape Town, said: “Selective travel restrictions really don’t prevent the spread of variants.”
It might also deter other countries from disclosing new variants, he added. “You’ve got to have this knowledge out there globally."
So far, 3.2 million Rwandans have been fully vaccinated while 5,944,102 have received the first dose, including children between the age of 12-17 years old.
The country targets to fully vaccinate at least 40 percent of its 12.9 million population or 5.1 million people by the end of this year.