U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa, 7 other countries over omicron variant

The United States will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday over concerns of the "heavily mutated" COVID-19 omicron variant, senior administration officials said.

The Biden administration will follow advice from Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and restrict travel from several African nations following the identification of variant B.1.1.529.

"This morning I was briefed by my chief medical advisor, Dr. Tony Fauci, and the members of our COVID response team, about the Omicron variant, which is spreading through Southern Africa," Biden said in a statement. As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries. These new restrictions will take effect on November 29."

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President Biden promised to take every measure necessary to keep Americans safe and defeat the pandemic. He urged Americans to continue getting vaccinated.

"The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations," Biden continued. "I call on the nations gathering next week for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting to meet the U.S. challenge to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally."

Travel restrictions will not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents, but all international travelers must test negative prior to travel. 

Fauci said officials have no indication that the omicron variant has yet entered the U.S.

So far health experts say there’s no indication that the new variant is more deadly than previous mutations of COVID, like  the delta variant. But they say it appears to be highly contagious.

"My main concern is that it shows that if a country has a 23% vaccination rate like South Africa, variants can continue to emerge," said Dr. Monica Ghandi, an infectious disease expert at UCSF.

"I think the rate of increase has been concerning for increased transmissibility, but biologically there are reasons to suggest that it also has vaccine evasion," added Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, also an infectious disease expert at UCSF.

Chin-Hong said the concern is based on evidence suggesting that Omicron may have a greater likelihood of reinfecting unvaccinated people. But he said it’s highly unlikely that current COVID vaccines would ever become ineffective against the new variant. 

"People should not be concerned about its ability to evade the vaccines. That I want to make clear up front," said Dr. Ghandi.

World Health Organization (WHO) officials designated the variant as "omicron" during an emergency meeting of its Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution. 

"The B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on [Nov. 24, 2021]. The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the delta variant," the WHO explained. "In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on [Nov. 9, 2021]."

The omicron variant, the agency noted, has a large number of mutations, "some of which are concerning." The variant has also been identified in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

The WHO advisory group will continue to evaluate the variant and the WHO said it would communicate any new findings with member nations and to the public as is necessary.

About a dozen other countries - including the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy - will create similar travel restrictions. The European Commission recommended countries introduce an "emergency brake" on travel from southern Africa in response to the new coronavirus variant which was first detected there. 

South Africa's Health Minister Joe Phaahla criticized the various travel restrictions as "completely against the norms and standards" that was little more than a "knee-jerk" reaction, Bloomberg reported. 

"It is a risk to disclose what you have found," Phaahla said, claiming that other countries are looking to scapegoat South Africa. 

Officials in Belgium identified a case of the variant, marking the first such case in Europe, EuroNews reported. 

"We have a case that is now confirmed of this variant," Belgian Health Minister Frank Vandenbrouke said on Friday. "This is someone who came from abroad, who tested positive on November 22, who was not vaccinated."

Belgium's chief virologist, Mark Van Ranst, said the traveller returned from Egypt, which is not yet on the list of travel restrictions. 

Cases of the omicron variant have also appeared in Hong Kong and Israel, the BBC reported. 

"Individuals are reminded to take measures to reduce their risk of COVID-19, including proven public health and social measures such as wearing well-fitting masks, hand hygiene, physical distancing, improving [the] ventilation of indoor spaces, avoiding crowded spaces, and getting vaccinated," the WHO concluded.