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President Joe Biden’s air travel restrictions come into effect in a matter of hours due to concerns about the new omicron variant COVID-19.
The United States plans to ban travel from South Africa and seven South African countries starting Monday.
“It’s going to give us a period of time to enhance our preparedness,” U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said of the ban Sunday during a television appearance.
There have been no confirmed cases in the United States yet, but Fauci said he may already be here. Canada’s health minister said the country’s first two cases of omicron were found in Ontario after two people who had recently traveled from Nigeria tested positive.
A new variant, called B.1.1.529, was called a “worrying variant” by the World Health Organization and was given the name “omicron” from the letter of the Greek alphabet.
Australian authorities said two travelers arriving in Sydney from Africa became the first in the country to test positive for the new variant. Arrivals from nine African countries are now required to be quarantined in a hotel when they arrive. Two German states reported a total of three cases in travelers returning over the weekend.
The variant was identified a few days ago by researchers in South Africa, and not much is known yet, including whether it is more contagious, more likely to cause serious illness or more able to evade vaccine protection. But many countries rushed to act, reflecting anxiety over anything that could prolong the pandemic that has killed more than 5 million people.
Fauci says it’s especially troubling because it has so many mutations, and that means it could be even more contagious than some other variants.
Doctors also say the effectiveness of current omicron vaccines is still unclear.
“They’re testing it right as we speak to determine whether those who have been vaccinated and produce antibodies — if those are effective antibodies, what we call neutralizing antibodies — against the new variant,” said Dr. Michael Misialek, associate president. of pathology at Newton-Wellesley Hospital. “The news of this variant should serve as a wake-up call to those who have let down their defenses some. It should serve as a reminder for those who are unvaccinated to get vaccinated.”
As for travel restrictions, Biden says they will remain in place until the U.S. has more information on the omicron variant. These restrictions do not apply to U.S. citizens.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.