The Saudi Arabia authority was the latest country to slam its doors against Nigeria as it, yesterday, suspended all flight operations coming from Nigeria into the kingdom over the outbreak of Omicron variant of COVID-19.
An official statement issued by Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) directed to all airports and private aviation operators in the Kingdom ordered suspension of all flight coming “directly or indirectly” from Nigeria.
Incidentally, Saudi came with the restriction order barely seven days after the country recorded her index case of Omicron from a passenger returning from North Africa into the country.
The statement said: “The Kingdom is suspending all incoming flights and entry for non-nationals coming directly or indirectly from Nigeria, except those who have spent a period of not less than 14 days in another country from which they are allowed to come.
“Home quarantine will be applied for a period of five days to Saudi citizens coming from the mentioned country, provided PCR examination on the first day and the fifth day, regardless of immunisation status, turns negative.
“Failure to comply with the circular issued by GACA is an explicit violation of government’s orders. Legal procedures shall be initiated against violators who will be held responsible.”
A source from the National Hajj Commission of Nigeria (NAHCON), who confirmed the suspension of passengers coming into the Kingdom from Nigeria, said NAHCON is still expecting official communication from Saudi authority regarding the new travel restriction. The Commission, however, insisted that the measure would not hamper its preparation for 2022 Hajj.
Meanwhile, the suspension of passengers into Saudi Arabia will hamper thousands of Nigerians who have already made preparations, including payment, to perform lesser Hajj.
A source from Azman Airline revealed that over 400 passengers who are set to depart Nigeria on Sunday for lesser Hajj would be left stranded by the restriction order.
The source told reporters that the local airline may be compelled to refund over N160 million air ticket fare to passengers whose journey to the holy land has been abruptly aborted.
“The sudden notice will cause the airline a lot of economic loss. While our flight scheduled to depart on Sunday has been aborted, we have similar number of passengers returning home from Saudi.
“While the airline is restricted from taking passengers, it is allowed to come with empty large body aircraft to ferry our passengers back to Nigeria. This will cost about N30 million to fuel the aircraft. It is really a huge loss,” he lamented.
Vice President, National Travel Agency of Nigeria (NATAN), Northern zone, Alhaji Abdulrazaq Ibrahim, told The Guardian that over 600 members of the association would suffer huge losses to the Kingdom’s action.
He said the order came when the association with over 400 subscribers in Kano State alone, have invested huge amount on passengers’ airlines, visa and accommodation ahead of the lesser Hajj at the holy land.
Though Abdulrazaq regretted that the action is coming when members were just recovering from major economic crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, which saw the cancellation of Hajj, he hoped the suspension would not last longer than necessary.
President Muhammadu Buhari had last month performed the Umrah (lesser Hajj) at Makkah, Saudi Arabia, while on a trip to the country for the Future Investment Initiative Summit.
Recall that earlier in the year (June), Saudi Arabia had cancelled hajj for all foreign pilgrims. NAHCON had decribed it then as an act of God.
A statement by the Head, Public Affairs, Hajia Fatima Sanda Usara, had said no matter how painful the cancellation was, the commission respects the decision of Saudi Arabia and have accepted it as Allah’s divine design.
Already, the Omicron variant has been reported in 57 countries and the number of patients needing hospitalisation is likely to rise as it spreads, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said yesterday.
WHO, in its weekly epidemiological report, said more data was needed to assess the severity of disease caused by the Omicron variant and whether its mutations might reduce protection from vaccine-derived immunity.
“Even if the severity is equal or potentially even lower than the Delta variant, it is expected that hospitalisations will increase if more people become infected and there will be a time lag between an increase in the incidence of cases and an increase in the incidence of deaths,” it said.
On November 26, WHO declared the Omicron variant, which was first detected in southern Africa, a variant of concern. It is the fifth SARS-CoV-2 strain to carry such a designation.
Referring to the risk of re-infection, WHO said: “Preliminary analysis suggests that the mutations present in the Omicron variant may reduce neutralising activity of antibodies resulting in reduced protection from natural immunity.”
Amid the increasing cases of the new variant rapidly sweeping the world, a ‘sister’ lineage of Omicron has been detected by scientists.
Experts who detected the strain said it is genetically similar to the super-mutant causing chaos in South Africa. But one key difference of the Omicron-like sub-variant is that it is missing a genetic quirk that allows officials to quickly track its spread.
Virologists said the version, currently called BA.2, has already been identified in South Africa, Australia and Canada, suggesting it is already spreading in other countries. However, no firm details about the near-identical strain are known – and its true origin remains a mystery.
Australian officials raised the alarm about BA.2 on Tuesday night, saying it was the ‘first in the world.’ It was spotted in a South African man who returned from the country’s Omicron ground zero of Gauteng.
Preliminary analysis suggests it contains its own set of mutations as well as many found in the original Omicron.
In theory, it means BA.2, as the original Omicron, could also be more transmissible than Delta, and possibly able to dodge vaccines.
However, no concrete evidence has yet been published, with BA.2 only thrown into the public spotlight yesterday.
While information is still emerging, one key difference of the Omicron-like lineage is that it can’t be detected almost immediately.
Known as the S gene dropout, this aspect of the original Omicron means it can be detected using a PCR test, as opposed to a more complicated lab analysis.
The fact that BA.2 does not have this S gene dropout means this shortcut cannot be used and is thus harder to track as an outbreak.
Australia’s Health Minister, Yvette D’Ath, confirmed the case in a press conference. “We are standing here announcing a new version of Omicron and it’s a first in the world,” she said.