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U.S. issues travel limits on Southern Africa over COVID-19 variant

Nov. 26, 2021 Updated Sun., Nov. 28, 2021 at 12 p.m.

People line up to get tested for COVID-19 in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday. The U.S. imposed new travel restrictions on nations in southern Africa on Friday.  (Associated Press )
People line up to get tested for COVID-19 in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Friday. The U.S. imposed new travel restrictions on nations in southern Africa on Friday. (Associated Press )
By Josh Wingrove </p><p>and Alan Levin Bloomber

President Joe Biden imposed new travel restrictions on nations in southern Africa on Friday, joining efforts by other countries to try and slow the spread of a potentially potent new COVID-19 variant that’s roiled global markets.

The administration will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting on Monday, according to senior administration officials.

In addition to South Africa, they include Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

The policy doesn’t apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents, though they must still test negative prior to travel to the U.S., according to administration officials.

The WHO listed the mutated virus it named “omicron” as a variant of concern Friday as several nations moved to halt travel from the region.

Countries across Europe halted air travel from the region earlier in the day, as did Canada, while the S&P 500 posted its biggest slide on Friday since February.

The action is a change of course for the U.S., which earlier this month abandoned country-or region-specific measures and replaced it with a system that hinges on a traveler’s vaccination status.

One of Biden’s top medical advisers said earlier Friday that officials would act after reviewing scientific data with counterparts in South Africa.

American health officials spoke with their South African counterparts midday New York time on Friday to gather medical and scientific data about the newly discovered variant.

Anthony Fauci, one of Biden’s top health advisers, said they’d use that data in deciding whether to join the European Union, the U.K. and others in restricting travel.

“You always put these things on the table but you don’t want to say you’re going to do it until you have some scientific reason to do it,” Fauci told CNN earlier on Friday.

It’s not clear how significant a new ban on flights from southern Africa would be in itself.

There are only a handful of direct flights between the U.S. and South Africa.

The overall market between that region of Africa and the U.S. is also relatively small compared to domestic travel and other international destinations, such as Europe.

But airline shares tumbled the most since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic on the news of flight bans.

The Bloomberg EMEA Airlines Index sank as much as 12% and the S&P 500 Index declined the most since February.

The new travel restrictions threaten to undo progress the airline industry has had with growing domestic travel and the reopening earlier this month of U.S.-European travel.

Other governments, including Hong Kong, have enacted travel restrictions from the region.

Despite raising concerns about the new strain, South Africa’s Health Minister Joe Phaahla said new travel bans imposed on the country after the discovery of a new COVID strain, particularly by the EU, were “unjustified.”

The moves “are completely against the norms and standards” advised by the World Health Organization, Phaahla said Friday during an online press conference.

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