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What are the new travel restriction in the US after the covid-19 Omicron Variant?

The new covid-19 variant has led to fast restrictions to prevent a new spread - but it may already be too late.

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What are the new travel restriction in the US after the covid-19 Omicron Variant?
Stephane de Sakutin AFP

Public health experts are warning that it is very likely that a new variant, Omicron, could already be circulating in the United States. Like the Delta variant, this new strain has genetic mutations that could make it more transmissible, as well as potentially being able to avoid vaccines.

The Omicron variant was first reported to the World Health Organization (WHO) from South Africa on 24 November, and has since been identified in other countries. The organization announced Friday that it would classify Omicron as a "Variant of Concern."

Swiftly, President Biden announced that his administration would be implementing a travel ban from seven African countries in light of the news from the World Health Organization. The President described the move as "precautionary," saying it would take effect on 29 November.

The countries included in the travel ban are:

  • South Africa,
  • Botswana,
  • Zimbabwe,
  • Namibia,
  • Lesotho,
  •  Eswatini,
  • Mozambique,
  • Malawi.

The risk of the new variant is its multiple mutations, which means vaccines may not be as effective as they were against previous variants. There are risks that it could avoid current vaccines altogether, but pharmaceutical companies say they can edit vaccines, and they would be ready to be rolled out in 100 days.

President Biden reaffirmed his commitment to remove vaccine waivers for poorer nations, allowing them to produce vaccines themselves. Currently, vaccines must be bought from the producers in Europe but they often cost much more. South Africa pays twice as much compared to the EU for the same vaccine, but waivers would significantly lower the cost of production.

What has South Africa said about the travel bans?

South Africa's health ministry has criticized the rush to impose new travel restrictions, calling them "draconian", and contrary to WHO guidance. It says it is being discriminated against by reporting the new variant.

In a statement, South Africa's foreign ministry said, "Excellent science should be applauded and not punished."

The bans are "akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker".

The statement added that the reaction has been much stronger compared to when variants had been discovered in Europe. Furthermore, an African Union official told the BBC developed countries were to blame for the emergence of the variant.

It's a result of the world's failure to vaccinate in an equitable, urgent and speedy manner. It is as a result of hoarding [of vaccines] by high-income countries of the world, and quite frankly it is unacceptable

AU vaccine delivery alliance co-chair Ayoade Alakija

The WHO has warned against countries quickly imposing travel restrictions, saying they should look to a "risk-based and scientific approach".