President Biden will lift travel travel restrictions that were imposed on eight southern African countries after the discovery of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 last month, the White House said Friday.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended ending the restrictions, which will expire Dec. 31, administration spokesman Kevin Munoz said in a statement.
“First, our nation’s health officials have made progress in understanding Omicron; importantly, our existing vaccines are effective against severe disease with Omicron, especially if you’re boosted,” Munoz said.
“Second, with Omicron now present across the US and globally, international travelers from these countries will not have a significant impact on US cases,” his statement continued.
The White House said the CDC had advised limiting travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi “out of an abundance of caution” to stem the spread of Omicron and to give time for US health officials to prepare for the highly transmissible variant.
“At the time these restrictions were put in place, it was clear that there was widespread community transmission in South Africa, as well as a great deal of cross-border travel in the region and little surveillance in many of the countries near South Africa,” Munoz argued.
The travel ban took effect Nov. 29 and applied to non-US citizens or legal permanent residents who had recently been in the region.
Critics said the restrictions served no epidemiological purpose, since the virus was likely already in the US when its discovery was announced by South African scientists over Thanksgiving weekend. Some also argued that the restrictions unfairly punished South Africa for their scientific transparency.
COVID-19 cases propelled by the Omicron variant are surging in the US but are not leading to a significant rise in hospitalizations.
And health experts in South Africa say cases there appear to have peaked, a trajectory they expect to be repeated in other countries around the world.
Omicron, which has been detected in at least 89 countries, was classified as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization on Nov. 26.
The first confirmed US case was identified on Dec. 1.