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U.S. to restrict travel from South Africa, 7 other nations amid new Covid variant

The new variant, classified by the WHO as a "variant of concern," is blamed for a surge of cases in South Africa and has sparked fears over its high number of mutations.

The U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries, effective Monday — a response to the emerging and newly named "omicron" variant of the coronavirus, President Joe Biden said Friday.

The policy, senior administration officials said, "was implemented out of an abundance of caution" and after advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Biden's chief medical adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci.

Other countries included in the restriction — which does not apply to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents — are Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

"As we move forward," Biden said in a statement, "we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises."

Addressing reporters later in Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he and his family are spending Thanksgiving weekend, Biden described the restrictions as proactive.

"We don’t know a lot about the variant except it is a great concern, seems to spread rapidly,” the president said.

Omicron, classified by the World Health Organization as a "variant of concern," is blamed for a surge of cases in South Africa and has sparked fears over its high number of mutations, which make it potentially more transmissible and resistant to vaccines.

Biden emphasized the importance of vaccines and booster shots, urging fully vaccinated Americans to receive their boosters as soon as they're eligible and making an urgent appeal to unvaccinated people.

"America is leading the world in vaccinating children ages 5-11, and has been vaccinating teens for many months now — but we need more Americans in all age groups to get this life-saving protection," he said in Friday's statement. "If you have not gotten vaccinated, or have not taken your children to get vaccinated, now is the time."

U.S. stocks fell Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average closing its worst day of the year as news of the variant — first detected in South Africa, with cases also identified in Asia and Europe — prompted concerns about prolonged pandemic troubles.

The WHO convened for an emergency meeting Friday, and the United Kingdom, the European Union and other countries already had announced they were restricting travel from the African continent.

“We don't know very much about this yet,” Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist and the WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, said in a Thursday video. “What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. The concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves.”

Biden directed part of his Friday statement to the "world community," asserting that the pandemic will not end "until we have global vaccinations."

"The United States has already donated more vaccines to other countries than every other country combined," Biden added. "It is time for other countries to match America’s speed and generosity."