BANNED COUNTRIES STARTING MONDAY
The ban does not apply to US citizens or greencard holders who are currently in those countries, or who plan to be in those countries after Monday
President Joe Biden will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting on Monday, following the detection on a highly transmissible new variant of COVID discovered there.
Those countries are Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, and Malawi, the White House said on Friday.
‘The policy was implemented out of an abundance of caution,’ a senior administration official said.
The move follows similar travel bans by the UK and other European countries.
The decision was made on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the COVID-19 Response Team, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, the President’s Chief Medical Advisor, who hours earlier said in an interview on CNN that it was too soon for any such restrictions.
The variant had already sent shivers through the market before the announcement, with the Dow dropping 1000 points after opening on Friday.
There are no direct flights to the US from most of the countries. The only direct route is from Johannesburg to Newark.
One plane is scheduled to land tomorrow morning with 250 people on board. New York Governor Kathy Hochul has announced that the state lab in Wansdworth will test samples of COVID-19 for Omicron. New York was America's ground zero of COVID back in March 2020.
‘Our scientists and public health officials are working quickly to learn more about this variant,’ the official said.
The policy does not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents. As with all international travelers, they must still test negative prior to travel, the White House said.
Further details on what new restrictions will be imposed on non-US citizens and green card holders are expected to be announced imminently.
‘We are in close contact with the Southern African public health officials and working closely with them to understand more,’ the senior administration official.
It comes amid fears of the newly-emerged Nu COVID variant, which scientists fear could be the most infectious strain of the virus to date.
President Joe Biden (pictured on Thursday) announced on Friday that he is banning travel from eight African countries starting on Monday
Earlier this morning, White House COVID tsar Dr Anthony Fauci told CNN that the US will had no immediate plans to restrict travel from South Africa, where a new 'super mutant' variant of COVID-19 is panicking scientists, until officials can study the variant more, Dr. Anthony Fauci said on Friday despite the UK and some European countries banning travel.
Dr Anthony Fauci said on Friday there is not enough evidence about the South African variant to halt flights to the US despite the UK, Israel and Germany all suspending travel because of it
The World Health Organization has named the new variant Omicron.
It remains unclear exactly how deadly it is among unvaccinated people, and American health agencies are yet to make any form of warning about it but there are fears it is more transmissible than any other variant yet and that it may also render some vaccines ineffective.
South African health officials are trying to calm other countries and have called the sudden panic a 'storm in a teacup'.
Both Pfizer and Moderna have said they can quickly update their vaccines if they need to to take the new variant on.
'It seems to be spreading at a reasonably rapid rate. We're finding more about it,' he said.
He added that there is 'no indication' the mutation is in the US, but that it is possible.
'When you look at a mutation it can give you a hint or prediction that it might evade the immune response you need to get that sequence of the virus, put it in the lab and test the antibodies.
'Right now, we're getting the material together to get a situation where you can directly test it. Right now it's a red flag that it might be an issue but you don't know. Once you test it you know for sure whether it does or does not evade the antibodies for example that we make for a vaccine.
The only direct flight from South Africa to America is scheduled to land at Newark tomorrow. There were none today but United operates a nightly flight ordinarily from Johannesburg to Newark, with around 250 people on board. There are other flights that will land in the US having originated in South Africa, but that have gone through Doha first. Some that were scheduled to stop in Europe have been canceled
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen today called for all flights to be halted until more is known about the variant.
Why is the Botswana variant so scary? Super strain has evolved to have ALL of the worst mutations of Alpha, Beta and Delta combined plus new ones
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.
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 recognise 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 recognise 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 hospitalisations 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.
Will it affect Christmas in the UK?
Experts said it will be weeks until they know how worrying the new variant is, so it is not yet clear what extra steps might need to be taken in the run up to Christmas.
The only restrictions brought in by the Government so far has been to add six countries to the red list.
But Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said new restrictions cannot be ruled out.
He told ITV's Good Morning Britain: 'On the one hand, I don't want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions.'
And when asked what the situation would mean for the UK around the festive period, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said Plan B measures — including mandatory face masks and work from home guidance — would be brought in if needed to control infection rates.
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.
The first case was uploaded to international variant database GISAID by Hong Kong on November 23. The person carrying the new variant was travelling 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 defences.
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 neutralising antibodies, which is the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has the better, experts said.
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 hospitalisations 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 hospitalisations 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, but has not yet been given a name based on letters of the Greek alphabet.
The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts at the World Health Organization are holding emergency meetings about the variant today, during which it is expected to be named. It could be called the 'Nu' variant.
'The answer is we don't know right now but we're going to find out for sure.'
The variant, though still largely a mystery to scientists, has already sent shivers through the US markets.
Dow futures fell 2.25 percent, and both the NASDAQ and S&P Futures Indices were down by more than 1 percent.
The price of Brent Crude, the market of the global price of oil, fell by six percent.
The variant, B.1.1.529, is believed to have emerged in Botswana - from where there are no direct flights to the U.S. - and is also being found in neighboring South Africa.
Hong Kong reported a case after a passenger who had recently traveled from South Africa was found to be infected with the variant, and then infected another person while in the same hotel, quarantining.
Israel has also identified a case 'in a person who returned from Malawi,' with 'two more cases of people returning from abroad' placed in quarantine, the country's health ministry said Friday.
Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, said initial data from the variant was worrying and border restrictions should be imposed.
The Dow tumbled on Friday morning as did the Nasdaq and the price of Brent Crude - the global marker for oil- also sank while Europe and the UK panicked over the new strain. The Dow sank more than 1000 points on Friday
'Looks like vaccine evasion could be real with this variant,' he tweeted, pointing out that the two patients in Hong Kong who had the variant were both doubled-jabbed with the Pfizer vaccine.
One of the two had recently been in Southern Africa. That person then passed it on to a second person, quarantining in the same hotel.
'It's very airborne,' Feigl-Ding said. 'The hotel guests were in different room across the hallway from each other. Environmental samples found the virus in 25 of 87 swabs across both rooms.'
He added: 'I think border and travel restrictions make sense. Especially since Hong Kong only caught the case because of a mandatory hotel quarantine. Which countries in the west still have that??? Almost none.'
Botswana has four confirmed cases, South Africa 77 - with the real figure likely in the hundreds - and Hong Kong has two, meaning 83 cases of the variant are confirmed so far.
But South African scientists tried to backpedal today saying it was 'likely' that vaccines still offered 'high levels of protection' against hospitalisations and deaths from the variant.
travel advice page for South Africa had the country listed as 'Level 1: Low Level of COVID-19', with flights to the US permitted from the African country since November 8.
The levels range from Level unknown, Level 1: Low, Level 2: Moderate, Level 3: High and Level 4: Very High.
The CDC page asks anyone travelling to and from South Africa to be fully vaccinated, or for those who are not to be tested for Covid. It also recommends travelers follow measures in-place in South Africa, including wearing a mask and social distancing.
South Africa's infection rate spiked 93 per cent in a day yesterday amid fears the strain is driving the surge. Local scientists say it has likely spread to all the country's nine provinces, but there is yet to be a surge in hospitalizations in epicenter Johannesburg.