U.S. to restrict travel from South Africa, 7 other countries as new Covid variant emerges

People line up to get on an overseas flight at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg, South Africa, Friday Nov. 26, 2021.

Jerome Delay | AP

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

In addition to South Africa, the affected countries are Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

The decision came less than three weeks after the Biden administration lifted pandemic travel restrictions on visitors from more than 30 countries.

President Joe Biden was briefed on Friday by White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci. The briefing came as other nations announced travel restrictions on southern Africa. The variant emerged in South America.

The European Union and the U.K. travel restrictions Friday on southern Africa, even as Belgian officials announced that several cases of the omicron variant had already been identified there.

The World Health Organization on Friday assigned the newly identified variant the Greek letter omicron, and formally recognized the strain, previously referred to as lineage B.1.1.529, as a “variant of concern.”

Health experts are deeply concerned about the transmissibility of the omicron variant given that it has an unusual constellation of mutations and a profile that is different from other variants of concern. It is not clear how severe infections would be for vaccinated patients.

It is feared a sharp upswing of Covid cases in South Africa’s Gauteng province — where the heavily mutated strain of the virus was first identified — could mean it has greater potential to escape prior immunity than other variants.

The designation of a new variant of concern coupled with mounting alarm from health officials sent global markets into a tailspin on Friday. Oil prices and travel and leisure stocks took heavy losses on the news.

This is breaking news. Check back for updates.