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WHO Announces ‘Omicron Coronavirus’ Variant; U.S. To Restrict Travel From South Africa

The mutation has affected several countries.

Non-U.S. citizens from South Africa and seven other countries will have travel restrictions starting on Monday, Nov. 29, as part of a global effort to stem a heavily mutated version of COVID-19.

According to senior Biden administration officials, the omicron variant has been discovered in South Africa, with other countries including Botswana, Eswatini, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Malawi, and Namibia also included in those travel restrictions.

With no indication Friday of how long the bans will remain in place, President Joe Biden said in a statement that he will be “guided by what the science and my medical team advises.” Biden was briefed on the variant by White House chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, as a growing list of countries began to issue their own travel bans.

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Canada, the European Union, and the U.K. all announced restrictions on travelers from southern Africa, even as Belgian officials announced that several cases of omicron variant had already been identified there. There has already been reactions stateside with New York “closely monitoring” the new strain, and the World Health Organization recognized “lineage B.1.1.529,” as a “variant of concern.”

With everything scientists have shared about omicron coronavirus, health experts are deeply concerned about its transmissibility, 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.

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There are 122 flights between the U.S. and South Africa, and this emergence of this new strain has encouraged Biden and his team to tell Americans to get their booster shots, and for parents to take advantage of the new vaccine doses approved for 5-11 year olds. Biden also urged members of the World Trade Organization to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines.

The emergence of the omicron coronavirus has thrown global markets into a tailspin, with airline and other travel stocks plunging Friday. Sudden changes in travel rules already make it difficult for customers to re-book travel and could further delay the return of lucrative international business travel.

United, which has the most scheduled service with 87 flights, will resume nonstop flights between Newark, New Jersey, and Cape Town, South Africa next month. Delta has 35 scheduled flights between the U.S. and South Africa in December.

This is a still-developing story.

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