LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — First detected in the United States Wednesday, omicron has rapidly become the dominant variant of the coronavirus in South Africa, a country that has held a special place in Dr. Zach Porterfield's heart.
An assistant professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Kentucky, Dr. Porterfield told LEX 18 he has lived in South Africa on and off over the last 21 years. He has studied as an HIV virologist in the country, where he said doctors and scientists have been doing exceptional work researching COVID-19.
"We probably found [omicron] in South Africa because there was a concerted effort to look," Dr. Porterfield said. "We have the expertise and technology to do that [genetic] sequencing."
Dr. Porterfield said he was planning to travel to South Africa next week, before learning about new travel restrictions imposed on South Africa and seven other African countries.
"I still have an apartment in Durban and projects and laboratory collaborations in South Africa that I was planning to return and try and set right," he said.
Although his plans may have been upended, Dr. Porterfield said he understands why President Joe Biden's administration implemented the latest travel bans.
"I think the right thing to do is take a moment to pause and think through what does this mean," he said.
President Biden explained earlier this week that while travel restrictions will not prevent the arrival of the variant, they could buy the administration time to prepare.
Health experts around the world, including representatives from the World Health Organization, have criticized the restrictions, suggesting they are ineffective and punitive.
"Blanket travel bans will not prevent the international spread of omicron," said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of the WHO. "And they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods."