President Joe Biden announced on Friday that his administration would ban travel from eight countries beginning on Monday, as the US seeks to prevent the spread of a new Covid-19 variant dubbed “Omicron”.
A statement from the White House indicated that travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi would be temporarily halted. The new policy does not apply to US citizens or lawful permanent residents of the United States.
“As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries. These new restrictions will take effect on November 29. As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises,” the president said in a prepared statement released minutes after the ban was announced.
“[T]he news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,” Mr Biden continued, before asserting: “The United States has already donated more vaccines to other countries than every other country combined. It is time for other countries to match America’s speed and generosity. “
Mr Biden also reiterated his call for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to remove the patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines, a position opposed by pharmaceutical companies that stand to make billions in profits from the jabs. He first endorsed the idea earlier this year, as calls grew for ways to make the vaccine more accessible in developing countries.
“If you have not gotten vaccinated, or have not taken your children to get vaccinated, now is the time,” the president’s statement continued.
The Omicron variant contains more mutations that previous variants of the Covid-19 virus, and scientists have yet to conclusively determine whether it is more transmissible, though the World Health Organization (WHO) said that there are reasons for concern over whether the Omicron variant carries a greater risk for reinfection.
Such a potential for greater risk of reinfection is worrisome because many who survive Covid-19 battle long-term side effects of the infection including damage to senses of taste and smell, as well as breathing issues. Such individuals could be seriously debilitated or even killed by a second, serious infection.
“This variant has a large number of mutations and some of these mutations have worrying characteristics,” said a spokesperson for the WHO on Friday, according to German news organisation DW News.
The US was not the only country to act on Friday. Just over two dozen nations that make up the European Union voted to implement travel restrictions as well, following the United Kingdom’s announcement on Thursday.
Mr Biden later took questions on the issue from reporters in Nantucket, Mass., where he and his family celebrated the Thanksgiving holiday.
The president said during a brief gaggle that he was not concerned about a stock market drop resulting from the emergence of a new variant, which he noted has occurred in the past.
“We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is of great concern,” he said, referring to the WHO’s designation of Omicron as a “variant of concern”.
One reporter asked the president why the US was waiting until Monday to let the travel ban take effect.
“Because that was the recommendation coming from my medical team,” Mr Biden responded.
“Here’s the deal: Every American who’s not been vaccinated, should be responsible and be vaccinated from age five years and up, number one,” the president added. “Number two, everyone eligible for booster shots should get the booster shot immediately upon being eligible. That is the minimum that everyone should be doing.”
He went on to dismiss concerns about whether bans on travel from countries with emerging variants discouraged foreign governments from reporting them: “[Y]ou can’t hide the variants. It’s not like someone could hide the fact that there’s a new variant.”
A previous variant known as “Delta” spread widely across the US this year as Mr Biden’s administration sought to surge vaccination rates around the country; many jurisdictions in the US, including Washington DC, were forced to reinstate mask mandates and other restrictions in July after initially lifting them.
Covid-19 has been attributed by the CDC as causing more than 764,000 deaths across the US since the pandemic began in early 2020. Hospitalisations and new cases are once again rising as the US continues to battle the Delta variant, particularly in areas where vaccination rates are low.
Just about 70 percent of the US’s total population is at least partially vaccinated against Covid-19, while about 60 percent have received at least two doses, according to the Mayo Clinic.