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US Restricts Travel From 8 Countries in Response to Omicron Variant

November 26, 2021 by Dan McCue
US Restricts Travel From 8 Countries in Response to Omicron Variant
People line up to get on the Air France flight to Paris at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

WASHINGTON – The Biden Administration on Friday imposed air travel restrictions on eight African nations in response to a new COVID strain first detected in South Africa.

The new travel restrictions, which go into effect Monday, apply to citizens of South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

The travel ban does not apply to American citizens or permanent residents.

In addition, President Biden on Friday called on the nations gathering next week for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting to waive intellectual property protections for CIVD vaccines to allow for their manufacture globally.

Driving these actions is the Omicron variant, also called B.1.1.529, a new COVID variant first reported to the World Health Organization on Nov. 24.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning” the WHO said in a statement released after an emergency meeting on Friday.

“The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021,” the WHO statement continued. “In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant.”

The 27-nation European Union, Canada, Russia and a host of other countries have also restricted travel for visitors from the southern Africa region.

In a statement from Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he is spending the Thanksgiving holiday weekend with family, President Biden said the travel restrictions are being imposed as a “precautionary measure” and that in the days ahead future administration actions “will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises. 

“For now, I have two important messages for the American people, and one for the world community,” the president said.

“First, for those Americans who are fully vaccinated against severe COVID illness – fortunately, for the vast majority of our adults — the best way to strengthen your protection is to get a booster shot, as soon as you are eligible,” he said. 

Booster shots have been approved for all adults over 18, six months past their vaccination and are available at 80,000 locations nationwide, according to the White House.  

“Second, for those not yet fully vaccinated: get vaccinated today,” Biden said. “This includes both children and adults. America is leading the world in vaccinating children ages 5-11, and has been vaccinating teens for many months now – but we need more Americans in all age groups to get this life-saving protection. If you have not gotten vaccinated, or have not taken your children to get vaccinated, now is the time.”

“Finally, for the world community: the news about this new variant should make it clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,” the president concluded. “The United States has already donated more vaccines to other countries than every other country combined. It is time for other countries to match America’s speed and generosity.”  

Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant was better understood. 

There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said. 

Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear how much of a public health threat it posed. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.

But a jittery world feared the worst nearly two years after the tenacious virus emerged and triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe.

“We must move quickly and at the earliest possible moment,” British Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.

According to the WHO, the Omicron variant has a large number of mutations. 

Preliminary evidence also suggests there is an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to others, the global health agency said.

“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant,” its statement said. “Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation. 

“Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” the WHO said.

“There are a number of studies underway and the TAG-VE will continue to evaluate this variant. WHO will communicate new findings with Member States and to the public as needed,” it added.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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