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Vice President Kamala Harris said Saturday that she has been briefed about the COVID-19 omicron variant and insisted that the Biden administration did what “is necessary” in implementing travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries to prevent its spread, but made no mention of additional travel restrictions.
Harris’ comments came during a visit to a Christmas market in downtown D.C. in celebration of Small Business Saturday.
“I have been briefed,” Harris told reporters. “As the president has said, we’re gonna take every precaution and that’s why we’ve taken the measures we have.”
Harris said she “can’t stress enough” how important it is for Americans to get their booster shots or their first or second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. “I will say what I say every time because it remains true. They are safe, the vaccines are free, and they will save your life.”
Asked about any additional travel restrictions, Harris thought for a moment and said, “We’ll take it one step at a time, but as of now we’ve done what we believe is necessary.”
Harris was accompanied on her visit to the Christmas market by second gentleman Doug Emhoff. The two bought an assortment of items, including candles from Smell of Love Candles, an “I’m Speaking” calendar, spices, maps from Terratorie and treats from The Capital Candy Jar.
On Friday, Biden restricted travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday over concerns of the “heavily mutated” omicron variant, which has been identified in Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
The omicron variant, according to World Health Organization (WHO) officials, has a large number of mutations, “some of which are concerning.”
In addition to the U.S., the European Union, United Kingdom and Israel have halted air travel to southern Africa in response to the new variant.
Movement restrictions, including international travel bans do clearly slow and limit the spread of infectious disease, and as is the case is with the current pandemic, allow countries the time and breathing space to prepare medical countermeasures as well as adapt strategies to control local outbreaks.
While for drug and vaccine manufacturers, largely based in the global north, it represents the firing of a start-gun in the next race for market share and profit as they test whether their currently licensed IP-protected vaccines will be effective and whether or not a new, modified vaccine is necessary.
So in effect, a low/middle income nation – along with the continent it sits in – is economically penalised, socially ostracised and socio-politically stigmatised for demonstrating global solidarity and doing the right thing through their timely reporting and sharing of the variant’s genetic data. Meanwhile, a small group of hugely wealthy pharmaceutical companies find new opportunities to generate exorbitant profits as fear starts to once again grip politicians and the wider public.
What’s necessary, therefore, to limit the negative socioeconomic impacts of these restrictive measures on trade and travel, is to have a sufficiently resourced global regime in place. This should support countries reporting new variants through the significant financial and social hardships that then ensue – a disaster or pandemic fund specifically engineered around the impacts of trade and travel restrictions.
Biden on Friday night signed the official proclamation restricting the travel of those “physically present” in the countries during the “14-day period preceding their entry, or attempted entry into the United States.”
The proclamation includes a list of those exempted from the new restrictions, including US citizens, lawful permanent residents and noncitizens who are the spouses of citizens or permanent residents.
It says it will remain in effect until terminated by the President and will not apply to any flights scheduled to arrive in the US that depart prior to 12:01 a.m. EST on Monday.
The decision to restrict travel comes as the federal government is still attempting to learn more about the new variant, named Omicron. They need to see more sequencing, but after discussing what they’ve seen so far, officials decided to halt travel from these other countries out of concern about what they don’t yet know.
Biden was briefed Friday on the new coronavirus variant circulating in southern Africa, he said in the announcement.
He told reporters later Friday of the decision: “I’ve decided we’re going to be cautious.”
“We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is a big concern and seems to spread rapidly, and I spent about a half hour this morning with my Covid team led by Dr. Fauci, so that was the decision we made,” the President said.
Officials said the policy was implemented out of an abundance of caution given the World Health Organization has now identified this as a variant of concern.
“Our scientists and public health officials are working quickly to learn more about this variant,” one official said.
White House in contact with airlines
A senior Biden administration official said earlier Friday that several steps had to be taken before the restrictions begin on Monday, including the formal US proclamation, Transportation Security Administration directives and coordination with airlines.
“This is a quick timeline but there are things that need to be done beforehand,” the official said.
An airline source told CNN that airline executives and the White House were in touch Friday, prior to the announcement of new travel restrictions.
Another source familiar with the situation said there was a call Friday afternoon with the federal government and the airline industry. The federal government is working on drafting an official directive that will include guidelines for airlines that go into effect just after midnight Monday morning.
The trade group for major US airlines said it has “many unanswered questions” about the forthcoming restrictions. Airlines for America spokesman Carter Yang told CNN the group is communicating with the administration and believes that travel decisions must “be rooted in science.”
“We remain in communication with the US government as specifics remain unknown at this time and there are many unanswered questions,” Yang said. “Amid this rapidly evolving situation, it is critical that US government decisions regarding international travel restrictions and requirements be rooted in science.”
South Africa’s health minister announced Thursday the discovery of the variant, which appears to be spreading rapidly in parts of the country.
The travel restrictions will buy the US federal government more time to investigate the new variant, officials say — but not much.
Inside the government, it is seen as inevitable that the new variant will appear in the US at some point, but the new restrictions should give federal health agencies and their global counterparts more time to learn about the variant, including the severity of the disease it causes. Officials do not believe, based on current thinking, that the variant is in the US yet.
Officials acted quickly to implement new restrictions. While the emergency of the variant had been flagged in the last several weeks, it was only in recent days that they learned how serious it was.
US officials are expected to speak to scientists in South Africa again, potentially on Sunday.
“Right now, we’re getting the material together with our South African colleagues to get a situation where you could actually directly test it. So, right now you’re talking about sort of like a red flag that this might be an issue — but we don’t know,” he said.
“You want to find out if in fact it does evade the vaccines that we’re doing,” Fauci said when asked about potential travel restrictions. “You’re prepared to do everything you need to do to protect the American public, but you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that.”
Several other countries — including the United Kingdom — have banned flights from South Africa and surrounding African countries in response to the emergence of the variant.
The travel restrictions do not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents. As with all international travelers, they must still test negative prior to travel.
This story has been updated with additional developments Friday.
CNN’s Allie Malloy, Jeff Zeleny, Gregory Wallace and Pete Muntean contributed to this report.
The World Health Organization said a newly identified coronavirus variant in southern Africa was “of concern” on Friday, as countries around the world moved to restrict travelers arriving from that region to keep it from crossing their borders.
So far, only a few dozen cases of the new variant have been identified in South Africa, Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong and Israel. There is no proof yet that the variant is more contagious or lethal, or could diminish the protective power of vaccines, but uncertainty on those questions was one factor in the speed of countries’ move toward restrictions.
On Friday evening, the World Health Organization gave the new version of the virus the name Omicron and called it a “variant of concern,” its most serious category. “This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning,” the W.H.O. said in its official description. “Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant.”
Earlier on Friday, the European Commission proposed that its member countries activate the “emergency brake” on travel from countries in southern Africa and other affected countries to limit the spread of the variant.
“All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant,” Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Union’s executive arm, said in a statement. “And travelers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”
In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants. This time, however, restrictions came within hours of South Africa’s announcement. At least 10 countries around the world had announced measures before South African scientists finished a meeting with World Health Organization experts about the variant on Friday.
The United States and Canada announced restrictions on travelers arriving from countries in southern Africa. Other governments that halted or restricted flights from South Africa included Bahrain, Belgium, Britain, Croatia, France, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Malta, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the Philippines and Singapore.
The new variant, initially called B.1.1.529, has a “very unusual constellation of mutations,” according to Tulio de Oliveira, director of the KwaZulu-Natal Research and Innovation Sequencing Platform. On the protein that helps to create an entry point for the coronavirus to infect human cells, the variant has 10 mutations, many more than the highly contagious Delta variant, Professor de Oliveira said.
Still, even epidemiologists who have been the most outspoken in supporting precautions against the virus urged calm on Friday, noting that little is known about the variant and that several seemingly threatening variants have come and gone in recent months.
“Substantively NOTHING is known about the new variant,” Roberto Burioni, a leading Italian virologist, wrote on Twitter, adding that people should not panic.
Stocks tumbled around the world on Friday as the news of the variant spooked markets and terrified many Europeans already exhausted by news of breakthrough infections, surging cases and rallies by vaccine skeptics.
Countries in Europe, once again the epicenter of the pandemic, were among the first to announce travel bans. Britain announced its restrictions on Thursday and put them into force on Friday.
“More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now,” Sajid Javid, the British health secretary, said on Twitter.
In the past two days, scientists in South Africa — which has a sophisticated detection system — discovered the variant after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub surrounding Johannesburg.
“This variant did surprise us — it has a big jump in evolution, many more mutations than we expected, especially after a very severe third wave of Delta,” Professor de Oliveira said.
Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos announced Friday that Canada will limit travel from seven countries in southern Africa, a region that has reported cases of a new — and possibly more infectious — COVID-19 variant.
Starting today, all foreign nationals who have travelled through South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini or Mozambique in the last 14 days will be barred from entering Canada.
Canadian citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return home from these countries but they will be required to wait for the results of a COVID-19 arrival test at a hotel.
If the test is negative, those returning travellers will be released to quarantine for a mandatory 14 days at home. They will also be required to go through a so-called “day eight” test on the eighth day of quarantine.
Below is an earlier version of this story.
Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is urging the federal government to ban all non-essential travel to and from southern Africa to stop a new — and possibly more infectious — COVID-19 variant from taking hold in Canada.
Countries around the world already have restricted travel from some areas of the African continent in an effort to keep the newly identified coronavirus variant from crossing their borders.
While many questions remain about how transmissible or virulent this new variant is, the U.K. Health Security Agency warned Friday that the new strain found in southern Africa is the “most complex” and the “most worrying we’ve seen.”
Britain, Israel and Singapore, among others, have restricted travel from South Africa and some neighbouring countries. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is proposing member states pull the “emergency brake” on travel from some countries in Africa to limit the spread of the variant.
“With reports of the spread of a new COVID-19 variant, we have a small window of opportunity to act and we must move now. Canada’s Conservatives are calling on Justin Trudeau to secure Canada’s borders,” O’Toole said in a media statement.
O’Toole is proposing a ban on all non-essential travel from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini and mandatory quarantines for all travellers from the affected countries, regardless of their vaccination status.
“Lessons learned from earlier in the pandemic need to inform our actions today. Temporary measures to immediately secure our borders will keep Canadians safe and protect our economy,” O’Toole said.
The <a href=”https://twitter.com/EU_Commission?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@EU_Commission</a> will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529.
In question period Friday, Conservative MP Luc Berthold, the party’s health critic, called for swift action to prevent the new variant from derailing Canada’s progress in the fight against COVID-19.
“Canadians are worried,” Berthold said. “The Liberal government has been slow, slow to warn Canadians, slow to close the borders, slow to provide vaccines. There’s still time to protect Canadians who are fed up with lockdowns.”
Associate Health Minister Carolyn Bennett said pre-departure PCR testing is still in place and those tests “are capable of detecting this variant.”
“The COVID-19 situation around the world continues to be volatile and unpredictable and we continue to monitor the situation very closely,” she said.
Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said the government won’t take lessons from the Conservatives on pandemic management when O’Toole himself refuses to require that all Conservative MPs get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Just last week, Alghabra said, the Conservatives were also calling for an end to pre-departure PCR testing and fewer travel restrictions.
“Forgive me for not taking advice from the Conservative Party,” he said.
Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious-disease official, said banning flights to the United States from southern Africa is a “possibility” but that a decision has not been made yet.
“There is always the possibility of doing what the U.K. has done, namely block travel from South Africa and related countries,” Fauci said Friday morning in an interview on CNN.
“That’s certainly something you think about and get prepared to do … But you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that.”
LONDON — Countries across the world rushed Friday to identify potential cases and halt travel from southern Africa where a new variant of Covid-19 emerged as a sudden source of global alarm.
The global scramble to contain the new variant was met with a plea for caution from the World Health Organization (WHO), which convened Friday for an emergency meeting to assess it.
But stocks and oil prices tumbled on fears of another pandemic setback, and the U.S. woke up the day after Thanksgiving to the possibility of a more uncertain holiday period ahead.
Scientists are still learning about the variant, which was first identified earlier this week and is currently known as B.1.1.529, but its concerning nature led to rapid developments as fears hit governments and markets alike.
The U.K. said late Thursday it was adding six African countries to its red list, banning all direct flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia.
They were joined by Israel, which announced Friday it was banning foreign travelers from all African countries, with the exception of North Africa, from entering the country.
European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted Friday that the 27-member bloc, already battling its own growing Covid crisis, would propose halting air travel from southern Africa. Singapore, Japan and Croatia also said they would restrict travel from the region, according to Reuters.
The U.K. Health Security Agency said it was investigating the B.1.1.529 variant, which it said includes a large number of mutations that may change its behavior with regard to vaccines, treatments and transmissibility.
“This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility,” said Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the U.K. Health Security Agency. “This is a clear reminder to everyone that this pandemic is not over.”
The variant was found earlier this week and has been discovered in South Africa and Botswana. The extent of the spread has yet to be determined, but a few cases were soon confirmed beyond Africa.
The Hong Kong government said Thursday that it had detected two cases, while Belgium became the first E.U. country to announce a case of the variant on Friday. Israel also said it had identified a case in a traveler returning from Malawi, with two other suspected cases placed in isolation. “We are currently on the verge of a state of emergency,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett warned. “Our main principle is to act fast, strong and now.”
The WHO said in an emailed statement Friday that it was convening a meeting of its Technical Advisory Group on Virus Evolution to determine whether it should be designated as a “variant of interest” or “variant of concern.”
Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist and Covid-19 technical lead at the World Health Organization, said Thursday that if it was designated it would be given a Greek name.
“We don’t know very much about this yet, what we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations,” Van Kerkhove said in a video on Thursday. “The concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.”
The organization warned that it would take a few weeks for it to understand the impact this variant has.
“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told a U.N. briefing in Geneva Friday, according to Reuters.
South Africa also pushed back against the U.K.’s temporary ban on flights from the region, describing it as “rushed.”
“Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” its minister of international relations and co-operation, Naledi Pandor, said in a statement Friday.
The emergence of the new variant was already being felt around the world, however, where some had hoped that vaccination campaigns could mean a 2022 largely free of the restrictions and anxiety that dominated the past two years.
Oil prices and airline shares plunged, while major stock indexes fell in Europe and Asia and Dow Jones futures dipped 800 points ahead of the market opening in the U.S.
Global vaccination rates remain uneven, with citizens of some wealthy industrialized countries already being offered booster shots while other nations struggle to inoculate their populations due in part to lack of access and public hesitancy.
The global death toll from Covid-19 topped 5 million people earlier this month.
Vivi Vitalone, Associated Press and Reuters contributed.
Johannesburg — A potentially dangerous new strain of theis alarming scientists around the world and prompting governments to ban travelers from southern African nations. The variant was first , where scientists were quick to flag it to the global health community.
As CBS News correspondent Debora Patta reports, there’s serious concern among experts that the new strain could set back the fight against the pandemic.
South African officials say the variant, which has more mutations than previously detected strains that have emerged around the world, marks a huge “jump in the evolution” of the virus since the global health crisis began two years ago.
The concern is that it could be more transmissible and or more resistant to the current vaccine formulas, according to public health expert Professor Salim Abdool Karim.
“If this variant is as, or more transmissible than the, it will be very difficult to anticipate it, to do anything different to what we have seen, which is that it would grow and spread across the world,” he told CBS News.
South African scientists have been working around the clock this week to determine just how bad the new variant, which thus far is being referred to only as B.1.1.529, really is. Lab results are still a few weeks away.
But despite the World Health Organization’s call for “a risk-based and scientific approach” as it urged nations not to adopt travel restrictions yet, some countries decided not to wait for the detailed scientific analysis. Britain, France and Israel have cancelled direct flights from South Africa and surrounding nations.
So far fewer than 100 cases of the new variant have been confirmed, largely among young people in South Africa, who have the lowest vaccination rate in the country.
Botswana and Hong Kong also confirmed cases in travelers who had recently returned from South Africa, and on Friday, Israel said three people who had also just returned from abroad were infected with the strain. One of those patients came in from Malawi, but Israeli officials didn’t specify where the other two had flown in from. All three had been placed under mandatory isolation on Friday.
Health officials in South Africa said the reaction by other countries was premature, given how little was understood yet about the new strain. Karim noted that it was only detected thanks to South Africa’s excellent scientific surveillance of COVID-19 cases, which specifically hunts for new variants. Few other nations have such a robust genomic sequencing program to find the strains.
“It is true that other countries that may not have the same level of diligence,” he told CBS News, which means other nations, “may well have new variants like either this one or others. They just don’t know about it.”
Since the first coronavirus vaccines became available more than a year ago, the WHO and public health experts around the world have warned that if doses aren’t shared with developing nations, even well-vaccinated countriesas new, potentially more dangerous variants are given the space — and unprotected human hosts — they need to evolve.
With less than 7% of the African continent’s total population vaccinated to date, there has beenon pharmaceutical companies and the wealthiest countries to redress the huge imbalance in vaccine distribution.
Pfizer’s partner BioNTech said on Friday that it was already studying the efficacy of the companies’ COVID vaccine formula against the new strain.
“We expect more data from the laboratory tests in two weeks at the latest,” a BioNTech spokesperson told the French news agency AFP. “These data will provide more information about whether B.1.1.529 could be an escape variant that may require an adjustment of our vaccine if the variant spreads globally.”
- Covid: Africa travel restrictions over variant fear BBC News
- New COVID variant: UK urgently brings in travel restrictions to stop spread of ‘the worst one we’ve seen so far’ Sky News
- Covid Live Updates: South Africa Identifies New Variant; Travel Ban The New York Times
- Six southern African countries added to UK’s travel red list travel amid COVID-19 variant concern Euronews
- View Full Coverage on Google News
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