U.S. to restrict travel from South Africa and other countries as it assesses risks of new Omicron variant
NANTUCKET, Mass. - The United States will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday, as President Joe Biden and his administration cautiously responded to a wave of global anxiety over the new omicron coronavirus variant.
The travel policy was implemented out of "an abundance of caution in light of a new coronavirus variant circulating in Southern Africa," a senior Biden administration official said in announcing it. Other regions and countries, including the European Union, Britain, Japan and Israel, also set restrictions for air travelers arriving from southern Africa.
The restrictions will apply to travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. They do not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents, the official said.
Biden was briefed by his chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, and others Friday on the variant. Biden said in a statement that the restrictions were "a precautionary measure until we have more information," and again urged Americans to get vaccinated and get booster shots.
"If you have not gotten vaccinated, or have not taken your children to get vaccinated, now is the time," Biden said.
"We don't know a lot about the variant, except that it is of great concern. It seems to spread rapidly, and I spent about a half-hour this morning with my covid team, led by Dr. Fauci, and so, that was the decision we made," Biden later told reporters. He also said his staff recommended waiting until Monday rather than immediately instating the ban.
Since late Wednesday, senior administration officials have been on a flurry of calls to review preliminary reports out of South Africa and to begin planning for various scenarios, said one of those officials said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
The White House arranged a meeting Friday between U.S. and South African doctors to learn more about the variant that is spreading in that region, Fauci said in an interview on CNN "New Day."
"We want to find out scientist-to-scientist exactly what is going on," Fauci said of the meeting.
The calls have included health officials in South Africa and representatives of the various vaccine manufacturers. But the administration official said it will likely be two weeks before health officials have a full picture of the vaccines' efficacy against the new variant.
Fauci said the new variant has "some mutations" that "are raising some concern," including "with regard to possibly transmissibility increase and possibly evasion of immune response."
On Friday, the stock market tumbled, with the Dow Jones falling more than 900 points on concerns about the new variant, its worst day of the year thus far at the close. The S&P 500 was also down by more than 2.2% at the close.
Biden told reporters the market activity was "expected" and typical after bad coronavirus news and that he was "not at all" worried about the drop.
The World Health Organization announced the official name of the variant, in line with protocols, and labeled it a "variant of concern" in a statement Friday morning. The WHO said it was first alerted to the variant by South Africa on Wednesday.
The new variant is emerging as Biden is struggling with low poll numbers but optimistic that the country is emerging from the pandemic. The president traveled to Nantucket with his family, a longtime tradition, to celebrate Thanksgiving and showcase how much has improved in American life over this time last year. He skipped the trip in 2020 because of pandemic restrictions.
On Thursday, Biden sought to project confidence about the fight against the pandemic when he called in to NBC's broadcast of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. "My message is, after two years, you're back. America is back. There's nothing we're unable to overcome," Biden told host Al Roker.
Biden in his Friday statement said the new variant underscored the need for other countries to do more to increase global vaccinations, including by waiving intellectual property restrictions that hamper production.
Fauci said scientists are trying to determine whether the current vaccines work against the new variant. "Once you test it, you'll know for sure whether it does or does not evade the antibodies that we make, for example, against the virus through a vaccine" or after infection, he said.
Fauci said that determining whether the variant can evade the vaccines is a key piece of data he'd like to have before recommending further action. "You're prepared to do everything you need to do to protect the American public but you want to make sure there's a basis for doing that, and that's what we're doing right now," Fauci said.
U.S. officials have started planning for various scenarios depending on how effective the vaccines are, and they remain confident in their ability to handle any outcome. But the senior administration official warned against drawing any immediate conclusions, saying only a limited amount of data is available at this point.
"The main message right now is get boosted," the official said. "It can only help with a new variant."