US joins EU to restrict South Africa travel over new Omicron variant
The US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other southern African countries to try to contain a new coronavirus variant spreading there.
From Monday, only US citizens and residents will be allowed to travel from the region.
This follows a similar flight ban imposed by the EU and the UK. Canada is also introducing travel restrictions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) earlier declared the new variant to be “of concern”, naming it Omicron.
US officials said flights from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi will be blocked, mirroring earlier moves taken by the EU. The ban will come into effect on Monday.
In a statement, President Joe Biden called the move a “precautionary measure” taken until more is known about the variant.
Canada is also shutting its borders to foreign travellers who have recently been to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Foreign citizens will be banned from Canada if they have been to the seven nations in the past 14 days.
The Omicron variant was first reported to the WHO from South Africa on 24 November and has since been identified in other countries.
South Africa’s health ministry has criticised the rush to impose new travel restrictions, calling them “draconian”, and contrary to WHO guidance.
Scientists say they still have much to learn about the virus’s new mutations, and the WHO has said it will take a few weeks to understand the impact of the new variant, as experts work to determine how transmissible it is.
The WHO on Friday prepared to meet to assess the potential impact of a new coronavirus variant identified as B 1.1.529.
According to WHO’s COVID-19 technical expert, Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, the information is still limited.
“There are fewer than 100 whole-genome sequences that are available, we don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves”, she said during a question-answer session on Twitter.
Dr. Van Kerkhove explained that researchers are currently trying to determine where the mutations are and what they potentially mean for diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines.
“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has, there’s a lot of work that is underway. It’s a variant that’s under monitoring. The (WHO) technical advisory group will discuss if it will become a variant of interest or a variant of concern and if that’s the case, we will give it a Greek name, but it is something to watch”, she added.
The expert thanked researchers from South Africa and Botswana for openly sharing information with the UN health agency.
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