President Joe Biden has announced the United States is restricting travel from eight southern African countries beginning Monday due to concerns about a new variant of COVID-19, first discovered in South Africa and dubbed Omicron, which is potentially more contagious and has more mutations than the other strains detected thus far.
The eight countries include Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Malawi and South Africa, the Biden administration said. The White House added that people on flights "scheduled to arrive in the United States that departed prior to 12:01 a.m. eastern standard time on November 29" would not be banned and U.S. citizens and lawful U.S. permanent residents can still enter the country.
However, travelers who are not U.S. citizens and have been to any of these eight African countries within the prior 14 days will not be allowed into the U.S. If the B.1.1.529 variant spreads, a senior administration official told Reuters that more countries could be added to the restriction list.
Several cases of the new variant have been detected in Europe, including two in the United Kingdom, two in Germany and one each in Belgium and Italy, according to the BBC, which said a suspected case has been found in the Czech Republic. Omicron cases have also been detected in Hong Kong and Israel.
“It is the policy of my administration to implement science-based public health measures, across all areas of the federal government, to act swiftly and aggressively to prevent further spread of the disease,” the president said in a statement released by the White House.
The ban has been imposed based on advice from Biden’s chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The new variant has been classified as the delta variant, which is known to be highly transmissible. However, it’s still not known whether Omicron causes more severe coronavirus symptoms.
The U.S. has reported over 47 million COVID-19 cases and more than 773,000 deaths have been associated with COVID-19, which includes people who did not die from COVID-19 but had been diagnosed as having been infected at least 28 days prior to their death.
The discovery of the B.1.1.529 variant has caused concerns around the world.
The World Health Organization has described Omicron as heavily mutated, warning that it might be able to re-infect individuals who were previously infected with COVID-19.
“Here is a mutation variant of serious concern,” South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla said at a media briefing last week, revealing that the latest variant was behind the “exponential rise” of cases in that country, The Epoch Times reported.
Omicron is the most heavily mutated version of the novel coronavirus discovered so far, according to the BBC.
Professor Tulio de Oliveira, the director of South Africa’s Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation, was quoted as saying that the new variant has an “unusual constellation of mutations” and is “very different” from other strains that have circulated.
At a media briefing last week, the professor said there were 50 mutations with over 30 on the spike protein, which the virus uses to travel into our body’s cells and which most vaccines target. Therefore, some scientists suggest that Omicron can possibly penetrate through vaccines.
Dr. Angelique Coetzee, the first South African doctor to alert authorities about patients with Omicron, told The Telegraph that the symptoms of the new strain are unusual but mild.
The symptoms included young people having intense fatigue and a 6-year-old child having a very high pulse rate, she was quoted as saying. She added that none of her patients suffered from a loss of taste or smell.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson held a press conference on Saturday where he announced restrictions on travel from Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola beginning on Sunday.
South Africa and five other neighbouring countries are also on England's red list, The Telegraph reported.
"We're not going to stop people travelling, I want to stress that, we're not going to stop people travelling, but we will require anyone who enters the U.K. to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result," Johnson was quoted as saying.
He also said he was "confident" this Christmas "will be considerably better than last Christmas."
Several other countries have imposed travel restrictions.