WASHINGTON – The United States will restrict travel for non-U.S. citizens from South Africa and seven other countries starting on Monday, part of a global effort to stem the spread of the heavily mutated omicron variant of Covid-19, according to senior Biden administration officials.
In addition to South Africa, the affected countries are Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
The decision came less than three weeks after the Biden administration lifted pandemic travel restrictions on visitors from more than 30 countries.
President Joe Biden was briefed on the variant Friday by White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, as a growing list of countries issued their own travel bans.
Canada, the European Union and the U.K. all announced travel restrictions on southern Africa Friday, even as Belgian officials announced that several cases of the omicron variant had already been identified there.
Also on Friday, the World Health Organization assigned the newly identified variant the Greek letter omicron and formally recognized the strain, previously referred to as lineage B.1.1.529, as a “variant of concern.”
Health experts are deeply concerned about the transmissibility of the omicron variant given that it has an unusual constellation of mutations and a profile that is different from other variants of concern. It is not clear how severe infections would be for vaccinated patients.
It is feared a sharp upswing of Covid cases in South Africa’s Gauteng province — where the heavily mutated strain of the virus was first identified — could mean it has greater potential to escape prior immunity than other variants.
The designation of a new variant of concern coupled with mounting alarm from health officials sent global markets into a tailspin on Friday. Oil prices and leisure stocks took heavy losses on the news.
Airline and other travel stocks plunged Friday. The new restrictions come just as carriers and aerospace manufacturers like Boeing have been upbeat about a resurgence in travel demand, particularly international routes next year.
There are 122 flights between the U.S. and South Africa scheduled for December, according to aviation consulting firm Cirium.
United, which has the most scheduled service with 87 flights, is set to resume nonstop flights between its Newark, New Jersey, hub and Cape Town next month. A spokeswoman said no changes are currently planned.
Delta has 35 scheduled flights between the U.S. and South Africa in December.
— CNBC’s Sam Meredith and Robert Towey contributed reporting.
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