The White House announced Friday that it will begin restricting travel from South Africa and seven other countries on the African continent starting Monday in light of the newly identified omicron variant of the coronavirus.
Senior administration officials say the restrictions come on the advice of President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The policy is being implemented “out of an abundance of caution” over the variant circulating around South Africa, which the World Health Organization has identified as a variant of concern.
Later, Biden issued a statement calling the step “a precautionary measure until we have more information.”
“As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises,” Biden vowed.
The other countries include Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, which all share the southern trip of the continent with South Africa.
The travel restrictions will not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents, but everyone must still test negative for the virus prior to arrival in the U.S.
The U.S. is joining more than a dozen other countries enacting similar restrictions within hours of South African scientists announcing the variant, which is known to have a large number of mutations. However, virtually nothing is yet known about the strain’s dangers, response to vaccines or transmissibility, so scientists are urging people to remain calm.
South Africa’s health minister, Joe Phaahla, spoke out against the travel restrictions Friday.
“The reaction of some of the countries, in terms of imposing travel bans, and such measures, are completely against the norms and standards as guided by the World Health Organization,” he told reporters.
Only a few dozen cases linked to the variant have been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel so far.