The U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other African countries starting on Monday in an effort to control the spread of the new omicron variant of COVID-19.
In a statement announced on Friday, the Biden administration said it will restrict travel from Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
Senior administration officials said that the policy was implemented out of an abundance of caution in light of the new coronavirus variant.
The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday held an emergency meeting at which it identified omicron as a variant of concern, a label applied when a particular strain is especially virulent, transmissible or able to defeat public health measures.
"President Biden has promised to take every measure necessary to keep Americans safe and defeat the pandemic, and this was a step recommended by U.S. government medical experts and the COVID-19 Response Team," a statement said.
The new travel restrictions will not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents, though they must show proof of a negative test prior to traveling to the U.S.
"This morning I was briefed by my chief medical advisor, Dr. Tony Fauci, and the members of our COVID response team, about the Omicron variant, which is spreading through Southern Africa. As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries. As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises," Biden said in a statement.
Biden called on Americans who aren't vaccinated to get their shots, and for those who are to get boosters.
"Boosters are approved for all adults over 18, six months past their vaccination and are available at 80,000 locations coast-to-coast. They are safe, free, and convenient. Get your booster shot now, so you can have this additional protection during the holiday season," the president said.
"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. In addition, I call on the nations gathering next week for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting to meet the U.S. challenge to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally," he added.
The decision to ban travelers from African countries comes less than three weeks after the international travelers were welcomed back to the U.S.
"Our scientists and public health officials are working quickly to learn more about this variant," the administration added.
The U.S. officials are in close contact with the southern African public health officials and working closely with them to understand more about this new strain and if it is vaccine resistant.
Several European countries including France and the U.K. have started to restrict flights from the region due to concerns over the latest COVID-19 variant.
The new strain has already also been detected in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.
South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said in response to a proposed European Union travel ban that the new travel restrictions are “unjustified.”
“The kind of knee-jerk reaction, it really doesn’t make sense,” Phaahla said at a media briefing on Friday, stressing that travel bans violate the norms and standards of the WHO.