HARARE, Dec 2 (Reuters) – Vice President and Health minister Constantino Chiwenga yesterday confirmed that the country had recorded its first case of the new COVID-19 variant, Omicron, raising fears of a hard lockdown in the coming few weeks.
“We are now in a particularly dangerous period once again, where the fourth wave is slowly visiting us with the identification of the B.1.1.529 or the Omicron variant of COVID-19,” Chiwenga, who is also the country’s health minister said on national TV.
Chiwenga did not give details of how many cases of Omicron infections had been recorded in the country.
Scientists fear that the variant is more contagious and vaccines may be less effective against it.
The announcement by Chiwenga comes at a time when the country has been recording a surge in COVID-19 cases in recent days, resulting in some schools closing early.
The Omicron variant was first detected in South Africa and Botswana.
It has now been reported in at least 24 countries, but this has not stopped a number of countries from imposing a travel ban on Zimbabwe alongside other southern African countries.
Chiwenga, who last week urged Zimbabweans not to panic over the new variant, confirmed that the country had recorded its first confirmed case.
“We are doing the genomic sequencing and we have already identified that we now have it (Omicron) in this country and, therefore, must remain vigilant,” Chiwengwa told young farmers in the capital yesterday.
“We want everyone to be safe, so let us be vaccinated and then let us follow the protocols. We don’t want to end up putting extra measures but if we follow these measures, I think every one of us will be safe and we will conquer this enemy.”
The announcement came a day after President Emmerson Mnangagwa had reimposed level two lockdown measures that include mandatory quarantine for returning citizens and visitors upon entering the country.
A 9pm to 6am curfew is now in place, restaurants and supermarkets must close at 7pm, bars and nightclubs are only open to the vaccinated while burials will now be monitored by Health ministry environmental officials.
Government on Wednesday issued Statutory Instrument (SI) 267 of 2021 giving effect to the new regulations.
Zimbabwe has recorded over 135,337 cases and 4 707 fatalities since the southern African country was hit by COVID-19 in March last year.
On Friday last week, the World Health Organisation (WHO) designated the new variant B.1.1.529, also known as Omicron, a variant of concern.
Researchers around the world are conducting studies to better understand many aspects of Omicron which is said to have many mutations.
South Africa had recorded about 11 500 new Omicron variant cases as of yesterday, up from 8 500 cases confirmed the previous day.
WHO has recommended, among other things, increased surveillance, particularly virus genome sequencing; focused research to understand the dangers posed by the variant; and ramping up mitigation measures, such as mandatory mask wearing.
Japan, Israel and a number of Western countries have already closed borders to foreigners, in particular from southern Africa.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel said people who are not vaccinated will be excluded from nonessential stores, cultural and recreational venues.
According to WHO, COVID-19 has infected about 6,1 million people in Africa and claimed 152 113 lives.