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World Reacts to New COVID Variant

November 29, 2021

U.S. President Joe Biden announced the United States will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other African countries, effective Monday.

Any non-U.S. citizen who has been in one of the eight nations during the 14 days before coming to the United States will be denied entry. The restrictions do not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents; however, they must test negative before traveling, as must all international travelers.

Biden made the announcement Friday after consulting with Dr. Anthony Fauci, his chief medical adviser. Besides South Africa, the other countries are Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Biden took the action after the World Health Organization (WHO) designated the new variant, B.1.1.529, a variant of concern and dubbed it omicron.

In his announcement, Biden said he had two important messages for the American people: For those fully vaccinated, "get a booster shot as soon as you are eligible." And "for those not yet fully vaccinated, get vaccinated today."

What is omicron?

Omicron is the fifth WHO-designated variant of concern. It was first detected in recent weeks in South Africa, which has seen an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases.

There are about 30 mutations on the virus' spike protein, and scientists worry that some of them could make the virus easier to transmit. But scientists do not yet know whether omicron is in fact more transmissible or dangerous.

Worries about the new variant sent financial markets reeling Friday and pushed the price of oil down by $10 a barrel.

The WHO said understanding the variant could take weeks and cautioned against travel restrictions. Its director of emergencies, Mike Ryan, urged "no knee-jerk responses."

Ryan's advice went unheeded as travel restrictions were immediately reinstated in places including Britain, the European Union, Canada and the U.S. Other countries, such as India, Japan, Israel, Turkey, Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates enacted some form of travel curbs, Reuters reported.

Some epidemiologists warned that they were likely too late. Omicron has already been found in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong. Dozens of passengers disembarking in the Netherlands from flights from South Africa initially tested positive for the coronavirus.

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