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Biden admin announces travel ban for South Africa and 7 other countries, citing new variant

The Biden administration announced plans on Friday to ban travel to the United States from South Africa and seven other countries, just hours after a new coronavirus variant was deemed a highly transmissible virus of concern.

The travel restrictions will begin Monday, affecting South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, according to a senior administration official. The administration’s decision was in response to advice from Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the official said. Roughly a dozen countries took similar action on Friday.

President Joe Biden, who is in Nantucket for the holiday, was briefed on the new variant Friday. He urged fully vaccinated Americans to get booster shots and the unvaccinated to get the “life-saving protection.” Biden also addressed the global community in his statement, saying the new variant shows the pandemic won’t end until vaccines are readily available around the world. He said the U.S. has donated more vaccines than every country combined, calling on others to match “America’s speed and generosity.”

“In addition, I call on the nations gathering next week for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting to meet the U.S. challenge to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally. I endorsed this position in April; this news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly,” the president said.

The new Covid variant was identified in South Africa this week. South African scientists said it’s to blame for the recent surge in Gauteng, the country’s most populated province. It’s unclear when the new variant began circulating, but it has been seen in travelers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.

A World Health Organization panel named the variant “omicron” and said early evidence suggests an increased risk of infection. It’s been given the same classification as the delta variant, labeled as a highly transmissible variant of concern. There is no evidence suggesting the omicron variant causes more severe disease.

Delta, which has ravaged the globe, still accounts for more than 99 percent of sequences in the world’s largest public database.

Medical experts warned Friday against overreaction. There have been other variants of concern, like beta, that never spread as delta did.

But world leaders, already on edge after almost two years of Covid and more than 5 million deaths, were quick to respond with new restrictions. Travel stocks sank as health officials in Europe and the U.K. restricted travel from South Africa. The Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly fell more than 1,000 points Friday, and the S&P 500 was down 2.3 percent, on pace for its worst day since the winter surge in February. The price of oil fell more than 13 percent, as fear of another global economic slowdown looms.

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