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TORONTO: Canada will start recognizing molecular COVID-19 tests conducted at an accredited lab in South Africa for residents returning home, dropping a heavily criticized travel restriction introduced to prevent the spread of the Omicron variant.

Ottawa had faced pressure from doctors, stranded passengers and the World Health Organization to reverse requirements that travelers from 10 southern African countries get molecular PCR (polymerase chain reaction) tests in a third country before returning to Canada.

Canada has now dropped the need to obtain a pre-departure negative COVID-19 PCR test from a third country, according to a travel advisory issued on Saturday.

The exemption will be in place till Jan. 7 next year and apply to all indirect flights departing from South Africa to Canada, the advisory added.

There is no change to Canada's ban on all foreign travelers from 10 African countries.

Canada, the United States, the UK and other countries have enacted Africa-specific travel bans even as Omicron is detected in more than 50 countries around the world.

But few countries have imposed Omicron restrictions similar to Canada's requirement. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, called actions barring southern African countries "disappointing" and "dismaying" in a tweet.

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