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Biden administration to lift travel restrictions on 8 African nations

The administration said that the travel ban would be lifted because vaccines have proven to be effective and because the omicron variant is already widespread.
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WASHINGTON — The Biden administration will lift the travel restrictions it had imposed on eight African nations to curb the spread of the omicron variant of Covid-19, according to a senior administration official.

The travel restrictions on South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi will end on Dec. 31 at 12:01 a.m. ET.

The official said that the decision was recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in part because health experts now know that the U.S.’s existing Covid vaccines are effective at preventing severe disease for those infected with omicron. The administration also said that international travelers from the African countries would not have a significant impact on U.S. cases given how widespread omicron was throughout the world.

The U.S. government had imposed the restrictions on Nov. 29 after the discovery of the new omicron variant in South Africa. President Joe Biden was criticized at the time by some health experts who viewed the foreign travel restrictions as ineffective.

South Africa's top infectious disease scientist Salim Abdool Karim said in an interview on Wednesday that omicron transmission appeared to be slowing almost as quickly as it spread, providing some hope that the threat of omicron will be short-lived.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Thursday that the travel ban was "never intended to be permanent; it was intended to be temporary. And lifting it is certainly our intention."

The omicron variant accounts for more than 73 percent of new cases in the U.S., according to CDC data shared on Monday

The senior Biden administration official said that the "value of country-based international travel restrictions is greatest early in an outbreak, before the virus or variant has been widely disseminated" and that the value declines "as domestic transmission starts to contribute a larger proportion of case burden."

During the travel pause, Biden implemented a new rule requiring all international travelers — regardless of nationality or vaccination status — to test negative within a day of their departures to the United States. He also extended the mask requirement for domestic travel through mid-March.