The Biden administration will lift travel restrictions on eight southern African countries imposed last month over concerns about the fast-spreading COVID-19 Omicron variant, a senior administration official says.
Foreign nationals who are barred from the United States because they have been in one of the eight countries within the prior 14 days will again be allowed on US-bound flights leaving after 12.01am eastern US time on December 31, the official added.
The United States on November 29 barred nearly all non-US citizens who had recently been in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi in an “abundance of caution” over the variant detected in South Africa.
The official said US public health agencies had recommended lifting the travel restrictions because retaining them would not have a significant impact on US cases given the widespread current US transmission, confidence that an Omicron-specific vaccine would not be necessary and that existing vaccines and booster shots are highly effective.
“This travel pause has served its purpose. It bought time to understand the science, it gave time to analyse the variant,” the official, who did not want to be identified because the decision has not yet been made public, told Reuters.
“This was not meant to keep Omicron out. We knew we couldn’t do that. The point was to reduce the number of cases coming in – in those early days and weeks.”
The restrictions have not prevented flights or Americans from returning from southern Africa.
Top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Monday that lifting the restrictions was likely “because we have enough infection in our own country… We’re letting in people from other countries that have as much or more infection than the southern African countries.”
President Joe Biden said on Tuesday he was considering reversing the restrictions.