A new fast-spreading variant of COVID-19 caused the U.S. government to restrict travel from southern African countries today. “Omicron” is now officially a Variant of Concern (VOC) for the World Health Organization (WHO). In addition to the U.S., other nations are also taking action in hopes of rapidly containing the new variant.
The new variant of SARS-CoV-2 in South Africa first came to the attention of WHO on November 24, 2021. The first confirmed infection of the variant was from a specimen on November 9. Botswana, Hong Kong, Belgium, and Israel have also had cases of the variant. It became a Variant of Concern for WHO on November 26.
“…this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.” WHO wrote in an earlier statement.
New travel prohibitions
The New York Times reports the U.S. will prohibit travelers from South Africa, as well as Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. The travel ban doesn’t include U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents. However, these groups will need a negative coronavirus test before traveling to the U.S.
In addition to the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Bahrain, Belgium, Croatia, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Singapore have restricted travel or stopped travel from South Africa.
European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said a flight ban was necessary because “mutations could lead to the emergence and spread of even more concerning variants of the virus that could spread worldwide within a few months.”
To be clear, health officials know the new variant is different. But they don’t yet know if Omicron is more life-threatening.
“This is a suspect variant. We don’t know if it is a very dangerous variant,” Belgium’s Health Minister Frank Vandenbroucke said. Globally, there have been more than 5 million deaths due to COVID-19 and its variants.