U.S. officials will impose travel restrictions on travelers from eight countries in Southern Africa, the latest nation to implement travel restrictions in that region in response to the new B.1.1.529 variant, according to Reuters.
The new restriction will restrict non-U.S. citizen travelers from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. It’s important to note that flights from those countries to the U.S. can still continue.
The new restrictions were an abrupt reversal after Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious diseases official in the U.S., told CNN Friday morning that the U.S. would wait for more data before imposing such border closures.
The move also comes less than three weeks after the U.S. reopened its borders to travelers from 33 countries, including South Africa, for the first time since the start of the pandemic.
On Friday morning, the World Health Organization (WHO) urged countries around the globe to exercise caution in implementing travel restrictions, saying there must be a “risk-based and scientific approach.” The WHO declared the new variant to be “of concern” following a meeting in Geneva on Friday.
About 100 instances of the new variant were discovered in South Africa this week, Gauteng province. Four cases were found in foreigners visiting Botswana, while one case each has been reported in Israel and Hong Kong, both in travelers returning from southern Africa.
The U.K. on Thursday banned flights from South Africa and five nearby African countries, including Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini. Flights will resume after Sunday, but entry will be restricted to legal residents who will have to quarantine.
The European Union said it was looking to similarly restrict travel, while Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Malta and Croatia imposed their own restrictions. Israel banned its citizens from traveling to South Africa, Bahrain said it would ban some travelers, and India, Singapore and Japan said they would enhance restrictions.
The new variant has caused significant concern among scientists and health officials because it has more than 30 mutations of the spike protein that it uses to invade human cells — about twice the number of the delta variant — which could possibly render vaccines less effective against it. The new variant differs dramatically from the original strain of the virus, which served as the basis for the current vaccines.
Scientists have also cautioned that much is still unknown about the mutations, including the degree to which the variant is more contagious or able to neutralize antibodies, if at all. It is expected to take several weeks for researchers to gather more definitive information.
Spokespersons for American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines reported they were monitoring the situation.