BRUSSELS - The United States joined Canada, the European Union and several other countries in instituting travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa in a wave of international reactions to the a new, highly mutated coronavirus variant discovered by South African scientists.
A World Health Organization panel named the variant "omicron" and classified it as a highly transmissible virus of concern, the same category that includes the delta variant, the world's most prevalent. The panel said early evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection.
The White House said the U.S. will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries in the region beginning Monday. It did not give details except to say the restrictions will not apply to returning U.S. citizens or permanent residents, who will continue to be required to test negative before travel. Meanwhile, Canada banned entry of foreign nationals who have traveled through southern Africa.
The European Union had earlier issued an order suspending travel from South Africa and surrounding nations after alarm about the new variant was sounded by scientists and world leaders.
"All air travel to these countries should be suspended," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. "And they should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant. And travelers returning from these regions should respect quarantine rules."
Italy's health ministry announced measures to ban entry for anyone who has been in seven southern African nations — South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini — in the past 14 days due. The Netherlands and the Czech Republic planned similar measures.
The Japanese government announced that Japanese nationals traveling from Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho will have to quarantine at government-dedicated accommodations for 10 days and take COVID-19 tests on the third, sixth and tenth days. Japan has not yet opened up to foreign nationals who are visiting for tourist purposes.
Germany said its flight ban could be enacted as soon as Friday night. Flights returning from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home, and travelers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days whether they are vaccinated or not.
South Africa is a member of the British Commonwealth and maintains close ties with the United Kingdom. But South Africa’s minister of health Dr. Joe Phaahla said the U.K. didn’t leave enough time to discuss the variant news before they banned flights from South Africa and its neighbors.
"The U.K. simply went ahead and imposed the restriction without even engaging us. So, that was basically a unilateral action without, before there could be any engagement," Phaahla said.
The 27 nations acted within hours upon the advise of the EU executive which said all needed to be extra cautious in dealing with the variant until it became clear how bad of a threat it would be, the EU presidency said in a statement.
The EU presidency, currently held by Slovenia, also called on all member states "to test and quarantine all incoming passengers."
After a 10-hour overnight trip, passengers aboard KLM Flight 598 from Capetown, South Africa, to Amsterdam were held on the edge of the runway Friday morning at Schiphol airport for four hours pending special testing. Passengers aboard a flight from Johannesburg were also being isolated and tested.
"It’s ridiculous. If we didn’t catch the dreaded bugger before, we're catching it now," said passenger Francesca de’ Medici, a Rome-based art consultant who was on the flight.
Advisers to the World Health Organization held a special session Friday to flesh out information about the worrying new variant of the coronavirus that has been detected in South Africa, though a top expert says its impact on COVID-19 vaccines may not be known for weeks.
There was no immediate indication whether the variant causes more severe disease. As with other variants, some infected people display no symptoms, South African experts said. The WHO panel drew from the Greek alphabet in naming the variant omicron, as it has done with earlier, major variants of the virus.
Even though some of the genetic changes appear worrisome, it was unclear if the new variant would pose a significant public health threat. Some previous variants, like the beta variant, initially concerned scientists but did not spread very far.
It has yet to be detected in the United States, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government's top infectious disease expert. Abroad, the variant "seems to be spreading at a reasonably rapid rate," he told CNN. And although it may be more transmissible and resistant to vaccines than other variants, "we don’t know that for sure right now."
On Friday, President Joe Biden signed a proclamation suspending the entry into the U.S. of immigrants and nonimmigrants who may pose a risk of transmitting COVID-19.
This includes those who were physically present within the Republic of Botswana, the Kingdom of Eswatini, the Kingdom of Lesotho, the Republic of Malawi, the Republic of Mozambique, the Republic of Namibia, the Republic of South Africa, and the Republic of Zimbabwe during the 14-day period preceding their entry or attempted entry into the U.S.
"While new information is still emerging, the profile of B.1.1.529 includes multiple mutations across the SARS-CoV-2 genome, some of which are concerning," Biden wrote. "In addition to these travel restrictions, the CDC shall implement other mitigation measures for travelers departing from the countries listed above and destined for the United States, as needed."
Biden said his administration has reexamined its policies on international travel and concluded that further measures are required to protect public health.
Some experts said the variant's emergence illustrated how rich countries’ hoarding of vaccines threatens to prolong the pandemic.
Fewer than 6% of people in Africa have been fully immunized against COVID-19, and millions of health workers and vulnerable populations have yet to receive a single dose. Those conditions can speed up spread of the virus, offering more opportunities for it to evolve into a dangerous variant.
"This is one of the consequences of the inequity in vaccine rollouts and why the grabbing of surplus vaccines by richer countries will inevitably rebound on us all at some point," said Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at Britain’s University of Southampton. He urged Group of 20 leaders "to go beyond vague promises and actually deliver on their commitments to share doses."
The Associated Press contributed.