White House lifting omicron travel ban on southern African countries amid spread in US

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The Biden administration is lifting its ban on air travel to the United States from eight African countries, reversing restrictions President Biden announced last month shortly after the discovery of the omicron coronavirus variant. 

The travel ban applied to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The president initially said the restriction was “a precautionary measure until we have more information,” but within a few weeks omicron became the dominant variant in the United States.

President Biden is lifting the travel restrictions he put in place on eight African countries at the end of the year.
(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

“At the time these restrictions were put in place, it was clear that there was widespread community transmission in South Africa, as well as a great deal of cross-border travel in the region and little surveillance in many of the countries near South Africa,” a senior administration official told Fox News Friday. “We will lift these restrictions effective Friday, December 31 at 12:01 AM.”

The official said the president is lifting the travel ban because there’s more information about the omicron variant now and because omicron is so pervasive in the United States, “international travelers from these countries will not have a significant impact on US cases.”

Travelers make their way through Miami International Airport on Dec. 23, 2021, in Miami. U.S. holiday travel numbers are rivaling 2019 amid an omicron variant surge, and President Biden is rescinding his travel ban on eight African countries where the variant first spread. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Reuters first reported the story. 

The president immediately fell under significant political pressure after he implemented the ban on the African countries. Many compared the Biden travel ban to the ban former President Donald Trump put on Chinese travelers early in 2020 – which Biden at the time suggested was “xenophobic.” 

In fact, Biden announced the travel ban just hours after his chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, said on CNN that he wasn’t sure the White House had enough information to justify a ban. 

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021. Fauci and other top administration officials indicated in recent weeks that the president was considering lifting his ban on travel from eight African countries where the omicron variant first spread. 
(AP Photo/Susan Walsh, File))

After the ban was implemented, the U.S. Travel Association called on the president to reconsider. 

“Covid variants are of concern, but closed borders have not prevented their presence in the United States while vaccinations have proven incredibly durable,” the group said. “That is why America’s travel industry is a vocal proponent of everyone getting a vaccine. With a vaccine and testing requirement in place to enter the U.S. we continue to believe that assessing an individual’s risk and health status is the best way to welcome qualified global travelers into the United States.” 

In recent weeks, the president and high-level officials signaled that they were considering rescinding the travel ban, but made no official announcement until Friday.

While omicron appears significantly more contagious than previous COVID-19 variants, studies suggest it is not as likely to cause hospitalization or death, particularly in vaccinated people. 

Fox News’ Peter Aitken, Greg Norman, Sam Dorman, Andrew Mark Miller and the Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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