US will restrict entry from South Africa and 7 other countries

A masked traveler checks his phone at the arrivals level outside the Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) amid tightening travel restrictions due to Covid-19 on January 25, 2021 in Los Angeles, California.

Patrick T. Fallon | AFP | Getty Images

WASHINGTON – The United States will restrict travel of non-US citizens from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday as part of a global effort to contain the spread of the highly mutated variant of the Covid-19 omicron, according to senior Biden administration officials.

In addition to South Africa, other countries included in the new restrictions are Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

On Friday, there was no indication of how long the bans would last. President Joe Biden said in a statement that going forward, he will “be guided by the advice of scientists and my medical team.”

The decision came less than three weeks after the administration lifted travel restrictions due to the pandemic for visitors from more than 30 countries, including South Africa.

Biden was briefed of the option Friday by White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci as a growing list of countries have issued travel bans of their own.

Canada, the European Union and the United Kingdom on Friday announced restrictions on travelers from southern Africa, although Belgian officials announced that several cases of the omicron-causing Covid virus have already been identified there.

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Also on Friday, the World Health Organization assigned the Greek letter omicron to the newly identified variant and formally recognized the strain, formerly referred to as strain B.1.1.529, as a “worrying variant.”… “

Health experts are deeply concerned about the possibility of transmission of the omicron variant, given that it has an unusual combination of mutations and a profile that differs from other variants of concern. It is unclear how severe the infections will be for vaccinated patients.

Experts fear that the sharp increase in the number of Covid cases in South Africa’s Gauteng province, where the highly mutated strain of the virus was first identified, could mean it has more opportunities to escape its previous immunity than other variants.

In a statement announcing the travel ban, Biden urged already immunized Americans to get booster shots and urged parents to take advantage of the new vaccine doses approved for children aged 5-11.

The emergence of this new strain in South Africa also highlights the importance of making vaccines available to people around the world, Biden said. To this end, he called on members of the World Trade Organization to abandon intellectual property protection for Covid vaccines.

The labeling of new worries, coupled with growing anxiety from health officials on Friday, sent global markets into a tailspin. Oil prices suffered heavy losses on the news.

Shares of airlines and other travel companies fell sharply on Friday. New travel restrictions follow reports of a new variant in remote locations such as Botswana, Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong.

The new restrictions are being introduced at a time when carriers and aerospace manufacturers such as Boeing were optimistic about a resurgence in travel demand, especially on international routes next year.

Flights between the United States and South Africa are limited compared to other international destinations, but sudden changes in travel rules make it difficult for customers to book and could further delay the return of lucrative international business travel.

According to aviation consulting company Cirium, 122 flights between the United States and South Africa are scheduled for December.

United, which has the most scheduled flights, with 87 flights, plans to resume non-stop flights between Newark, New Jersey, the hub and Cape Town next month. A spokeswoman said no changes are currently planned.

Delta has 35 scheduled flights between the US and South Africa in December.

– Sam Meredith and CNBC’s Robert Toey contributed to this report.

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