Joe Biden on Friday announced a ban on travel from eight southern African countries in response to a new COVID variant – hours after his chief scientific advisor suggested the move was unlikely, and despite Biden himself declaring last year that ‘banning travel will not stop it’.
The president, in Nantucket for a Thanksgiving break with his family, said travel will be banned from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi.
U.S. citizens and green card holders will still be able to travel into the U.S. from the banned countries, but no one else will be allowed.
Biden’s decision came after the UK and Israel on Thursday halted travel, and the EU followed suit.
President Biden spoke with reporters today outside The Nantucket Tap Room where he said he decided on the ban out of an abundance of caution. He is Nantucket celebrating Thanksgiving with his family
President Joe Biden on Friday banned travel from eight African countries – shaded red in the map. South Africa is the only one to have direct flights to the United States, with 13 a week. Now citizens of the eight countries, or anyone who has been there recently, are unable to enter the US
The moves have been made in response to a new COVID variant, known as Omicron, which was first identified in Botswana and is now spreading rapidly through South Africa. It has also been found in Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium, and is worrying scientists because it appears to be able to easily reinfect those who have already been infected, or who have had the vaccine.
Yet only a few hours before Biden announced his decision, his chief scientist, Dr Anthony Fauci, said he thought a ban was unlikely.
Fauci appeared to have changed his mind after speaking to South African scientists. He then relayed the information to Biden, with Biden saying the decision was ultimately made on Friday after speaking to Fauci.
‘This is really something that’s in motion,’ he said in an interview with CNN, broadcast shortly before 8am ET.
‘And we just arranged right now a discussion between our scientists and the South African scientists a little bit later in the morning, to really get the facts.
‘Because you’re hearing a lot of things back and forth.
‘We want to find out, scientist to scientists, what is going on.’
He said they were ‘in very active communication’ with their South African colleagues.
Asked whether he thought there should be a travel ban, like the British one, he replied: ‘Obviously as soon as we find out more information we’ll make a decision as quickly as we possibly can.’
Dr Anthony Fauci said Friday there is not enough evidence about the South African variant to halt flights to the US despite the UK, Israel and the EU all suspending travel because of it. Hours later, Biden banned the flights
He added: ‘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.
‘That’s the reason why we’re rushing now to get that scientific data to try and make an informed decision about something like that.’
Pressed on what measures the US would take, if Omicron was found in the country, he said the priority would be finding out if it did evade vaccines.
He added: ‘There is always the possibility of doing what the UK has done, namely block travel from South Africa and related countries,’ Fauci
‘That’s certainly something you think about and get prepared to do. You’re prepared to do everything you need to do to protect the American public.
‘But you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that, and that’s what we’re doing right now.’
It was unclear who then spoke to the South African experts.
But, six hours later, at 2:38pm ET, Biden tweeted that he had decided to implement a travel ban.
He issued a statement, saying: ‘This morning I was briefed by my chief medical advisor, Dr. Tony Fauci, and the members of our COVID response team, about the Omicron variant, which is spreading through Southern Africa.
‘As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries.’
FULL BIDEN OMICRON STATEMENT
This morning I was briefed by my chief medical advisor, Dr. Tony Fauci, and the members of our COVID response team, about the Omicron variant, which is spreading through Southern Africa. As a precautionary measure until we have more information, I am ordering additional air travel restrictions from South Africa and seven other countries. These new restrictions will take effect on November 29. As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises.
For now, I have two important messages for the American people, and one for the world community.
First, for those Americans who are fully vaccinated against severe COVID illness – fortunately, for the vast majority of our adults — the best way to strengthen your protection is to get a booster shot, as soon as you are eligible. Boosters are approved for all adults over 18, six months past their vaccination and are available at 80,000 locations coast-to-coast. They are safe, free, and convenient. Get your booster shot now, so you can have this additional protection during the holiday season.
Second, for those not yet fully vaccinated: get vaccinated today. This includes both children and adults. 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. If you have not gotten vaccinated, or have not taken your children to get vaccinated, now is the time.
Finally, for the world community: the news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this 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. It is time for other countries to match America’s speed and generosity.
In addition, I call on the nations gathering next week for the World Trade Organization ministerial meeting to meet the U.S. challenge to waive intellectual property protections for COVID vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally. I endorsed this position in April; this news today reiterates the importance of moving on this quickly.
From Nantucket, the president told reporters that he had made the decision after a 30 minute conversation with Fauci and his team.
‘We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is a great concern and seems to spread rapidly,’ said Biden.
‘I spent about a half hour this morning with my covert team led by Dr. [Anthony] Fauci and so that was the decision we made.’
Biden’s support for the travel ban – which comes into effect on Monday – stands in contrast to his skepticism while Donald Trump was president about the value of the measure.
In early 2020, as COVID began to spread, Biden condemned Trump for spreading ‘hysteria’ and using pandemics as an excuse for xenophobia.
‘I remember how Trump sought to stoke fear and stigma during the 2014 Ebola epidemic,’ Biden wrote on January 27, 2020.
He said Trump – who demanded that Barack Obama ‘close down the flights from Ebola infected areas right now,’ despite there being no direct flights from the areas – was urging ‘reactionary travel bans that would only have made things worse.’
On February 5, 2020, Ron Klain, the former ‘Ebola czar’ and a campaign adviser who is now the White House chief of staff, testified before Congress that Trump’s travel ban was ineffective.
‘We don’t have a travel ban,’ Klain tells a House Foreign Affairs panel. ‘We have a travel Band-Aid right now.
‘First, before it was imposed, 300,000 people came here from China in the previous month. So, the horse is out of the barn.
‘Second, what we have restricted is not travel to or from China, but passports to and from China.
‘There’s no restriction on Americans going back and forth. There are warnings. People should abide by those warnings.
‘But today, 30 planes will land in Los Angeles that either originated in Beijing or came here on one-stops, 30 in San Francisco, 25 in New York City. Okay?
‘So, unless we think that the color of the passport someone carries is a meaningful public health restriction, we have not placed a meaningful public health restriction.’
Biden himself maintained the skepticism about Trump’s policy, tweeting on March 12, 2020, after Trump expanded the travel ban to include Europe: ‘A wall will not stop the coronavirus. Banning all travel from Europe — or any other part of the world — will not stop it. This disease could impact every nation and any person on the planet — and we need a plan to combat it.’
By the end of March 2020, however, Biden’s spokespeople were insisting that he was not against travel bans entirely.
On March 25, one spokesman, Andrew Bates, attempted to backpedal.
‘This was not in reference to coronavirus travel restrictions. Travel restrictions, when supported by science, advocated by public health officials, and backed by a full strategy can be warranted,’ he said.
‘Travel restrictions can buy time; but here, the time they bought for preparation was squandered when Trump used it to downplay, rather than ready the country for, the disease.’
And on April 3, 2020, his deputy campaign manager Kate Bedingfield said: ‘Joe Biden supports travel bans that are guided by medical experts, advocated by public health officials, and backed by a full strategy.
‘Science supported this ban, therefore he did too.’
Fauci himself was supportive of Trump’s bans.
In March 2020, testifying before Congress, Fauci was asked if the European travel ban would have a significant impact on reducing the spread of community cases.
He replied: ‘A firm yes.’
He added: ‘Because if you look at the numbers it’s very clear that 70 percent of new infections in world are coming from that region, from Europe.
‘Of the 35 or more states that have infections, 30 of them now, most recently, have gotten them from a travel related case from that region.’
Yet by the end of the 2020, in the midst of the second wave and with questions being asked about halting flights from the UK, Fauci was less convinced.
‘It might be premature to do that,’ he told PBS on December 21.
‘I don’t think that that kind of a draconian approach is necessary.
‘I think we should seriously consider the possibility of requiring testing of people before they come from the U.K. here.
‘But I don’t think that there is enough evidence right now to essentially lock down any travel from the U.K., but seriously to consider the possibility that you might want to require people who are coming here to be tested within a period of time, you know, 24, 34, or 76 hours before they get on a plane to come to the United States.’
Why is Omicron so scary?
What is so concerning about the variant?
Experts say it is the ‘worst variant they have ever seen’ and are alarmed by the number of mutations it carries.
The variant — which the World Health Organization has named Omicron — has 32 mutations on the spike protein — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain.
Experts fear the changes could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective in a best-case scenario.
This is because so many of the changes on B.1.1.529 are on the virus’s spike protein.
The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike from older versions of the virus.
The Botswana variant has around 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognize the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus. But the mutations may make the spike protein look so different that the body’s immune system struggles to recognize it and fight it off. And three of the spike mutations (H665Y, N679K, P681H) help it enter the body’s cells more easily. Meanwhile, it is missing a membrane protein (NSP6) which was seen in earlier iterations of the virus, which experts think could make it more infectious. And it has two mutations (R203K and G204R) that have been present in all variants of concern so far and have been linked with infectiousness
But because the spike protein looks so different on the new strain, the body’s immune system may struggle to recognise it and fight it off.
It also includes mutations found on the Delta variant that allow it to spread more easily.
Experts warn they won’t know how much more infectious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalizations and deaths for up to six weeks.
What mutations does the variant have?
The Botswana variant has more than 50 mutations and more than 30 of them are on the spike protein.
It carries mutations P681H and N679K which are ‘rarely seen together’ and could make it yet more jab resistant.
These two mutations, along with H655Y, may also make it easier for the virus to sneak into the body’s cells.
And the mutation N501Y may make the strain more transmissible and was previously seen on the Kent ‘Alpha’ variant and Beta among others.
Two other mutations (R203K and G204R) could make the virus more infectious, while a mutation that is missing from this variant (NSP6) could increase its transmissibility.
It also carries mutations K417N and E484A that are similar to those on the South African ‘Beta’ variant that made it better able to dodge vaccines.
But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant — which was linked with a surge of cases in the state in March — that has been linked to antibody escape.
Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear.
Is it a variant of concern?
The World Health Organization has classified the virus as a ‘variant of concern’, the label given to the highest-risk strains.
This means WHO experts have concluded its mutations allow it to spread faster, cause more severe illness or hamper the protection from vaccines.
Where has the variant been detected so far?
The variant has so far been spotted in five nations: South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.
Most cases have been spotted in Gauteng, a province in north east South Africa where Johannesburg is based.
The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong and was spotted in someone who travelled to the country from South Africa.
No cases have been seen in the UK. But scientists do not sequence every positive Covid sample in the UK and not everyone who catches the virus will take a test.
This means there could be people infected with the variant in Britain.
What is the UK doing about the variant?
The Health Secretary announced last night six countries would be added to the red list from midday on Friday November 26.
The red-listed countries are: South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe. This means all direct flights from these countries to the UK are banned.
Anyone arriving in England between midday today and 4am on Sunday from these countries — or who has been in the countries in the 10 previous days — must complete a passenger locator form, quarantine at home and should take a PCR test.
Anyone arriving from these countries after 4am on Sunday must stay in a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days and take a Covid test on or before the second day of their stay, as well as another test on or after day eight.
And the UK Health Security Agency classified B.1.1.529 as a Variant Under Investigation, which means it has worrying mutations.
Experts will now conduct a risk assessment and may increase its ranking to Variant of Concern if it is confirmed to be more infectious, cause more severe illness or make vaccines and medicines less effective.
Where did B.1.1.529 first emerge?
The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong on November 23. The person carrying the new variant was traveling to the country from South Africa.
The UK was the first country to identify that the virus could be a threat and alerted other nations.
Since then, 77 cases have been confirmed in South Africa, two in Hong Kong and three in Botswana.
Health chiefs in Israel today announced it had one confirmed and two suspected B.1.1.529 cases, while there are two suspected cases in Belgium.
Experts believe the strain may have originated in Botswana, but continental Africa does not sequence many positive samples, so it may never be known where the variant first emerged.
Professor Francois Balloux, a geneticist at University College London, told MailOnline the virus likely emerged in a lingering infection in an immunocompromised patient, possibly someone with undiagnosed AIDS.
In patients with weakened immune systems infections can linger for months because the body is unable to fight it off. This gives the virus time to acquire mutations that allow it to get around the body’s defenses.
Will I be protected if I have a booster?
Scientists have warned the new strain could make Covid vaccines 40 per cent less effective.
But they said emergence of the mutant variant makes it even more important to get a booster jab the minute people become eligible for one.
The vaccines trigger neutralizing antibodies, which is the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has the better, experts said.
Britain’s Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, said: ‘The booster jab was already important before we knew about this variant – but now, it could not be more important.’
When will we know more about the variant?
Data on how transmissible the new variant is and its effect on hospitalizations and deaths is still weeks away.
The UK has offered help to South Africa, where most of the cases are concentrated, to gather this information and believe they will know more about transmissibility in two to three weeks.
But it may be four to six weeks until they know more about hospitalizations and deaths.
What is the variant called?
The strain was scientifically named as B.1.1.529 on November 24, one day after it was spotted in Hong Kong.
The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts at the World Health Organization on November 26 named the variant Omicron.