President Biden said in a statement today that new travel restrictions from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi are being imposed because of the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant.
“This morning I was briefed by my chief medical advisor, Dr. Tony Fauci, and the members of our COVID response team, about the Omicron variant, which is spreading through Southern Africa,” Biden said. “As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries. These new restrictions will take effect on November 29. As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises.”
The World Health Organization said today that the B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to WHO from South Africa on Wednesday. “The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterized by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant,” WHO said. “In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant. The first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on 9 November 2021.”
“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” WHO continued. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs. The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa. Current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant. Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation. Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.”
WHO’s Technical Advisory Group met today and designated Omicron as a variant of concern. A VOC features an increase in transmissibility or detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, or increase in virulence or change in clinical disease presentation, or decrease in effectiveness of public health and social measures or available diagnostics, vaccines, or therapeutics.
Biden reminded Americans of the importance of getting vaccinated and getting booster shots. “The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,” he said. “The United States has already donated more vaccines to other countries than every other country combined. It is time for other countries to match America’s speed and generosity.”