WHO Names New Variant of Concern ‘Omicron,’ US Issues Travel Ban

The bans will impact foreign nationals coming from seven southern African countries.
President Joe Biden
President Joe Biden has announced a travel ban impacting southern African countries. Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The U.S. and Canada are banning and restricting travel from southern Africa after the World Health Organization named a new, potentially more infectious COVID-19 variant that’s been spreading in the region. 

On Friday the WHO announced the new B.1.1.529 coronavirus, discovered in Botswana, was a variant of concern and named it the “Omicron” variant, after a Greek letter.

President Joe Biden announced the U.S. will restrict travel from foreign nationals coming from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi. The rules won’t apply to American citizens and permanent residents. They were enacted out of “an abundance of caution,” U.S. officials said.

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Meanwhile Canada announced a swath of restrictions, banning foreign nationals who’ve traveled to the aforementioned countries in the last 14 days. Additionally, people who’ve been to those countries in the last 14 days must get tested prior to re-entering Canada and quarantine for 14 days upon their return. 

The European Union has already put a similar ban in place. 

In a press conference Friday, South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla criticized the bans as a “knee-jerk, draconian reaction.” 

Because there are no direct flights between Canada and southern Africa, Canadians and permanent residents returning will have to get tested where their layover is located. 

Following a meeting in Geneva Friday, the WHO released a statement saying “infections have increased steeply” in South Africa in recent weeks, coinciding with the discovery of the Omicron variant. 

“Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other [variants of concern],” the WHO said. 

The organization called for countries to enhance their surveillance and reporting surrounding the Omicron. 

As VICE News reported earlier Friday, the omicron variant is concerning to scientists because it has a number of mutations that are associated with higher transmissibility and an ability to evade vaccine protections. 

One scientist who models how diseases spread suggested the omicron could have a 500 percent viral competitive advantage over the original COVID-19. The delta variant, which is the current dominant strain globally, had a 70 percent advantage.

As news of the variant broke, the stock market crashed, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing 905 points. The S&P 500 index had its worst day since September, dropping 2.27 percent, while the Nasdaq composite had its worst drop in two months.

—with files from David Gilbert

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.