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US, European, Arab nations restrict travel from African countries over Omicron

Starting Monday, America will limit travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi; Fauci says more info on variant still needed

International passengers arrive at Miami international Airport before they are screened by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using facial biometrics to automate manual document checks required for admission into the US on November 20, 2020, in Miami, Florida. (AP Photo/ Lynne Sladky)
International passengers arrive at Miami international Airport before they are screened by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using facial biometrics to automate manual document checks required for admission into the US on November 20, 2020, in Miami, Florida. (AP Photo/ Lynne Sladky)

The United States announced Friday it is restricting travel from eight southern African countries over fears of a new variant of COVID-19, a US official said.

Travel will be restricted starting Monday from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, a senior Biden administration official said.

Only US citizens and residents will still be able to travel from the eight countries, the official added.

The decision came hours after senior US government scientist Anthony Fauci said Washington wanted more data on a worrisome new COVID-19 variant first detected in southern Africa before joining other countries in banning flights from the region.

Fauci told CNN that while “there’s always the possibility” of blocking flights, “you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that. And that’s what we’re doing right now.”

He said there was “no indication” yet that the newly identified strain of COVID-19 had reached the United States.

US chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on July 20, 2021. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

“As soon as we find out more information, we will make a decision as quickly as we possibly can,” said Fauci, who is President Joe Biden’s top adviser on the coronavirus.

“You don’t want to say you’re going to do it until you have some scientific reason to do it. That is the reason why we’re rushing now to get that scientific data.”

It was not clear why the US position mere hours later seemed to contradict Fauci’s comments.

Meanwhile Friday, EU officials holding an emergency meeting over the variant, dubbed Omicron, agreed to urge all 27 nations in the bloc to restrict travel from that region.

Britain, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are among nations suspending flights from South Africa and surrounding countries, while Japan will require travelers from the region to quarantine for 10 days.

Saudi Arabia was among countries in the Middle East and North Africa to ban travelers from several African nations due to fears over a new coronavirus variant.

The Saudi ban comprises flights to and from those countries, the official Saudi Press Agency said, quoting an interior ministry official.

A health worker prepares to administer Russia’s Sputnik V COVID-19 vaccine inside the Makati Coliseum, in Manila, Philippines on May 4, 2021 (AP Photo/Aaron Favila, File)

It said, however, that foreign nationals from the seven countries could enter the kingdom if they had spent the previous 14 days in another country and comply with Saudi health protocols.

The official Emirati news agency WAM said the UAE ban would go into effect on Monday and was only for travelers coming from those African countries, regardless of the airline, and included transit passengers.

Bahrain announced similar measures targeting six African countries, including South Africa, the official BNA news agency said.

Jordan’s interior ministry, acting on recommendations from the health ministry, also announced a ban for non-Jordanian travelers coming from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Lesotho and Eswatini.

The North African kingdom of Morocco banned travelers from those same countries due to fears over the new coronavirus variant detected in South Africa.

Fears that the variant could seriously set back global efforts to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, battering already vulnerable economies, sent stocks plunging on Wall Street, down at midday by nearly 1,000 points.

The World Health Organization has declared the recently-discovered B.1.1.529 strain of COVID-19 to be a variant of concern, renaming it Omicron.

“Member States agreed to introduce rapidly restrictions on all travel into the EU from seven countries in the Southern Africa region: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe,” European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer tweeted.

The measure was only a recommendation to suspend flights from those African nations. “This is not a formal decision but a recommendation. It is up to each member state to take its own decisions,” an EU official told AFP.

Many EU member states had already gone ahead with flight suspensions from some or all of the seven African countries. Others were expected to follow suit over the coming days.

An EU official told AFP that the diplomats and officials meeting in Brussels under the EU’s Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) mechanism opted to emphasize “restrictions” over travel suspensions.

That is because EU citizens and residents were allowed to return to their home countries — though they will likely face PCR tests and quarantine on arrival.

A member of the medical staff walks in a crowded COVID-19 isolation room at the University Emergency Hospital in Bucharest, Romania, Friday, Oct. 22, 2021 (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda, File)

Non-EU citizens and residents would be barred from traveling into the EU under the agreed recommendation.

The current Slovenian presidency of the European Union tweeted that the IPCR meeting agreed to activate an “emergency brake” allowing member states to rapidly change travel criteria to keep pace with changes brought on by COVID.

The presidency “called upon members to test and quarantine all incoming passengers” in its tweet.

There was no immediate fuller statement giving details, so it was not clear whether that meant passengers from the seven African countries, or all passengers arriving in the EU regardless of point of origin.

Some in South Africa criticized the travel bans as premature, saying the country was being punished for its transparency on the new strain.

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