Biden restricts travel from South Africa and seven other countries on Monday

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Following the advice of the country’s best infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Biden administration will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia , Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Biden signed the official proclamation Friday night restricting travel by “physically present” people to countries during the “14-day period prior to their entry or attempted entry into the United States.”

The proclamation includes a list of those exempt from the new restrictions, including U.S. citizens, legal permanent residents, and noncitizens who are spouses of citizens or permanent residents.

It says it will remain in effect until the president cancels it and will not apply to scheduled flights arriving in the U.S. that depart before 12:01 a.m. EST on Monday.

The decision to restrict travel comes when the federal government is still trying to learn more about the new variant, called Omicron. They need to see more sequencing, but after discussing what they’ve seen so far, officials decided to stop travel from these other countries out of concern for what they don’t know yet.

Biden was briefed Friday on the new coronavirus variant circulating in southern Africa, the announcement said.

Friday later he told reporters about the decision: “I have decided we will be prudent.”

“We don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is a big concern and seems to spread rapidly, and I spent about a half hour this morning with my Covid team led by Dr. Fauci, so that was the decision we made, ”said the president.

Officials said the policy was implemented with great caution, as the World Health Organization has now identified it as a variant of concern.

“Our scientists and public health officials are working quickly to learn more about this variant,” an official said.

The White House in contact with the airlines

A senior Biden administration official said Friday before that several steps had to be taken before the restrictions began on Monday, including the formal US proclamation, the Transportation Security Administration guidelines and coordination with the airlines.

“This is a quick timeline but there are things that need to be done beforehand,” the official said.

An air source told CNN that airline executives and the White House were in contact Friday before the announcement of new travel restrictions.

Another source familiar with the situation said there was a call on Friday afternoon with the federal government and the airline industry. The federal government is working on drafting an official directive that will include guidelines for airlines that go into effect shortly after midnight on Monday morning.

The commercial group of major US airlines said it has “many unanswered questions” about the upcoming restrictions. Airlines for America spokesman Carter Yang told CNN that the group is communicating with the administration and believes travel decisions should be “rooted in science.”

“We remain in communication with the US government as specifics remain unknown at this time and there are many unanswered questions,” Yang said. “Amid this rapidly evolving situation, it is critical that US government decisions regarding international travel restrictions and requirements be rooted in science.”

South Africa’s health minister on Thursday announced the discovery of the variant, which appears to be spreading rapidly across parts of the country.

Buying time

Travel restrictions will give the U.S. federal government more time to investigate the new variant, officials say, but not much.

Within government, it is considered inevitable that the new variant will appear in the U.S. at some point, but the new restrictions should give federal health agencies and their global counterparts more time to know the variant, including the severity of the disease. causes. Officials do not believe, according to current thinking, that the variant is still in the US.

Officials acted quickly to implement new restrictions. Although the emergence of the variant had been marked in recent weeks, it was only in the last few days that they learned how serious it was.

U.S. officials are expected to speak with South African scientists again, potentially on Sunday.

Currently, “there is no indication” that the new variant is in the United States right now, and American scientists are working closely with colleagues in South Africa to learn more about the emerging variant, Fauci, advisor Biden’s chief physician and director of The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN’s Brianna Keilar before travel restrictions were announced Friday.

“Right now, we’re getting the material together with our South African colleagues to get a situation where you could actually directly test it. So, right now you’re talking about sort of like a red flag that this might be an issue — but we don’t know,” he said.

“You want to find out if in fact it does evade the vaccines that we’re doing,” Fauci said when asked about possible travel restrictions. “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.”

Several other countries, including the United Kingdom, have banned flights from South Africa and surrounding African countries in response to the emergence of the variant.

Travel restrictions do not apply to U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. As with all international travelers, they still have to give negative before traveling.

This story has been updated with additional news on Friday.

CNN’s Allie Malloy, Jeff Zeleny, Gregory Wallace, and Pete Muntean contributed to this report.

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