President Joe Biden imposed new travel restrictions on southern African nations on Friday, joining the efforts of other countries to try to curb the spread of a potentially potent new variant of Covid-19 that has affected global markets.
The administration will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday, according to senior administration officials. In a statement, Biden called the decision a “precautionary measure until we have more information.”
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In addition to South Africa, the restrictions affect Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The policy does not apply to US citizens and lawful permanent residents, although they must still test negative before traveling to the United States, according to administration officials.
The ban may fuel concerns about the variant, which triggered a market sell-off as investors scrutinized emerging data on its potency and how quickly it is spreading. The S&P 500 closed 2.3% lower during a shortened session on Friday, the biggest drop in a day since February, and the high-tech Nasdaq 100 Index lost 2.1%. The Bloomberg EMEA Airlines Index plunged 11.3% on the day.
Biden told reporters that the new variant is “very worrying” because it “appears to be spreading rapidly.” But he said he was “not at all” concerned about investors selling stocks because it was “expected, they always do when Covid goes up.”
The World Health Organization on Friday listed the mutated virus, now called Omicron, as a “variant of concern” as a growing list of countries moved to block travel from the region. Countries in Europe stopped air travel from southern Africa earlier in the day, as did Canada.
“As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what science and my medical team advise,” Biden said in a statement. “The news about this new variant should make it clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have the global vaccines.”
The announcement is a turnaround for the Biden administration, which earlier this month abandoned country- or region-specific measures and replaced them with a system that depends on the traveler’s vaccination status. Friday’s announcement leaves the US with a hybrid system of travel bans for unvaccinated foreigners, as well as a broader ban in the eight designated countries on Friday, which have comparatively lower vaccination levels.
The administration did not immediately detail its restrictions, including any waivers that were considered and whether people from affected countries would be able to enter if they spent a particular period of time in another region beforehand.
Anthony Fauci, one of Biden’s top health advisers, said early Friday that officials would act after reviewing the scientific data with their counterparts in South Africa. Biden said he made the decision after a briefing from Fauci and members of his Covid-19 response team.
US health officials spoke with their South African counterparts at noon New York time on Friday to gather medical and scientific data on the newly discovered variant. The administration remains in contact with health experts throughout southern Africa to learn more about the variant.
Biden again urged Americans to get vaccinated and get booster shots to bolster their own protection. All American adults are eligible for boosters six months after their second dose or two months after receiving the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine.
Biden also called on other nations to increase vaccine donations and on a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization next week “to waive intellectual property protections for Covid vaccines, so that these vaccines can be manufactured globally.” .
European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has proposed activating an emergency ban on air travel from southern Africa until there is a clearer understanding of the potential dangers. The UK also closed the routes, although no cases of the new variant have yet been detected in the country.
The fear is that the new mutated coronavirus may be more resistant to vaccines or the body’s own immune response after previous infections.
It is unclear how significant a new US ban on flights from South Africa would in itself be. There are only a handful of direct flights between the US and South Africa. The overall market between that region of Africa and the US is also relatively small compared to domestic travel and other international destinations, such as Europe.
The bans are being enacted under section 212 (f) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, an official said, the same law the United States used to restrict direct travel from Europe and elsewhere before the pandemic.
New travel restrictions threaten to undo the progress the airline industry has made with the growth of domestic travel and the reopening of travel between the United States and Europe earlier this month. Other governments, including Hong Kong, have enacted travel restrictions from the region.
“In the midst of this rapidly evolving situation, it is critical that the US government’s decisions regarding international travel restrictions and requirements are rooted in science,” said Carter Yang, spokesperson for Airlines for America, the commercial group of the big American airlines.
“International travel is critical to reviving economies around the world, supporting millions of jobs in the US and abroad, revitalizing communities and reuniting families,” added Yang.
Despite concerns about the new strain, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla said that the new travel bans imposed on the country after the discovery of the new Covid strain, particularly by the EU, were “unjustified” .
The measures “are completely against the norms and standards” advised by the WHO, Phaahla said Friday during an online press conference.
© 2021 Bloomberg