US to lift COVID travel restrictions on Southern African nations

US ban imposed over Omicron fears applied to eight African countries, including South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi.

A traveller walks through the Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, December 23, 2021 [Hannah Beier/Reuters]

The United States will lift restrictions on travellers from Southern African nations, imposed last month amid concerns over the spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant, a Biden administration official has announced.

In a tweet on Friday, the White House’s assistant press secretary, Kevin Munoz, said the curbs would be lifted on December 31, in line with a recommendation from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The restrictions gave us time to understand Omicron and we know our existing vaccines work against Omicron, [especially] boosted,” Munoz wrote.

The US was among several countries to impose travel restrictions on countries in Southern Africa after scientists in South Africa first identified Omicron on November 24. The World Health Organization (WHO) then dubbed the strain a “variant of concern” and warned it posed a “very high risk”.

But the WHO and other global health experts criticised the travel bans, with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres saying on December 1 that restrictions that isolated any one country or region were “not only deeply unfair and punitive – they are ineffective”.

“With a virus that is truly borderless, travel restrictions that isolate any one country or region are not only deeply unfair and punitive – they are ineffective,” Guterres said at a news conference at that time, calling instead for increased testing for travellers.

The US ban applied to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

A senior White House official added that with Omicron present across the US and globally, international travellers from the eight affected countries would not have a significant effect on US cases.

“During the travel pause President Biden reduced the time for pre-departure testing to one day opposed to three days … travellers from these eight countries will be subject to these same strict protocols,” the official said.

Later on Friday, the State Department said Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked South Africa and its scientists for “their transparency and expertise” around identifying the Omicron variant in a phone call with his counterpart Naledi Pandor.

“He emphasized the importance of the longstanding partnership between the United States and South Africa to combat the impacts of COVID-19,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement describing the call.

The CDC said earlier this week that Omicron has become the dominant coronavirus strain in the US, accounting for 73 percent of new infections.

The surge in cases has prompted some major US cities to tighten restrictions and restore indoor mask mandates, while President Joe Biden pledged on Tuesday to provide additional resources to combat the spread of the virus.

Biden said his administration would buy 500 million rapid, at-home COVID-19 tests and make them available for free starting in January, while the federal government will continue to establish federal testing sites where needed.

He also promised more support for “COVID-burdened” hospitals and urged Americans to get vaccinated.

“Get your booster shot, wear a mask,” the US president said. “Our doctors have made it clear booster shots provide the strongest protection. Unfortunately, we still have tens of millions of people who are eligible for the booster shot who have not yet gotten.”

But as Omicron continues to spread, the WHO head warned this week that the rush in wealthy countries to roll out additional COVID-19 vaccine doses was deepening vaccine inequity – and prolonging the pandemic.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday that priority must be given to getting vaccines to vulnerable people around the world, rather than giving additional doses to the already vaccinated. “No country can boost its way out of the pandemic,” he told reporters.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies