Omicron variant prompts new US travel ban on South Africa, other nations

Coronavirus

NEW YORK — The United States will ban non-citizen travel from South Africa and seven additional African nations beginning Monday due to a new COVID-19 variant of concern, White House officials said Friday.

The European Union nations on Friday also agreed to impose a ban on travel from southern Africa to counter the spread of the virus variant.

The White House did not give details on the new travel ban except to say the restrictions will not apply to returning U.S. citizens or permanent residents, who will continue to be required to test negative before their travel.

South African scientists identified a new version of the coronavirus this week that they say is behind a recent spike in COVID-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province. It’s unclear where the new variant actually arose, but it was first detected by scientists in South Africa and has now been seen in travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

From just over 200 new confirmed cases per day in recent weeks, South Africa saw the number of new daily cases rocket to 2,465 on Thursday. Struggling to explain the sudden rise in cases, scientists studied virus samples from the outbreak and discovered the new variant.

The World Health Organization on Friday classified the new COVID-19 variant as a highly transmissible virus of concern and named it omicron. The panel said early evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection.

Medical experts, including the WHO, warned against any overreaction before the variant that originated in southern Africa was better understood. But a jittery world feared the worst nearly two years after COVID-19 emerged and triggered a pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people around the globe.

There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said.

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