US Bans Travel From Southern Africa Over New Covid Variant

The U.S. just re-opened travel to vaccinated visitors, after a non-sensical policy of limiting entry by those had been in some high profile spread countries while welcoming others from some of the worst affected countries in the world.

Now, in the face of the new Covid-19 variant identified in South Africa, the U.S. is banning travel from South Africa along with Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi.

  • This only applies to non-citizens (U.S. citizens can’t spread the new variant?)
  • And it doesn’t start until Monday (we’ve asked the virus to wait before spreading because of the holiday weekend)

The variant had widely been expected to be called Nu, the next letter in the Greek alphabet, but the World Health Organization skipped over Nu and, it appears, also Xi in naming this variant Omicron.

Numerous nations have banned travel from the region already including the U.K. and Europe. Cases have been identified in Hong Kong, Belgium, and Israel. The woman who tested positive for the new variant in Belgium had no connection to South Africa. Her symptom onset came 11 days after travel in the Mideast.

A travel ban shows that politicians are ‘doing something’ but doesn’t stop the virus, outside of isolated island nations.

  • The virus variant is already spreading in communities, and isn’t limited to South Africa
  • People travel from South Africa to places where there are no travel banes before entering the U.S.
  • The U.S. ban applies only to land border crossings

We do not know yet whether this new variant will become dominant, or the extent to which it escapes immune protection. It’s troubling because how much it has mutated (32 mutations in the spike protein) leading to the possibility of immune escape (the spike protein looks different than what we’ve developed antibodies against from vaccination or prior infection) and because it appears to be up to 500% more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain (by contrast, Delta is considered ~ 70% more transmissible). At least based on some early indications, we’ll soon know more:

As long as the virus is spreading broadly, it will continue to mutate. And, it seems, it has a greater range in which it can mutate while still remaining infectious to humans than many had previously thought. Similar mutations appear to occur around the world. Stopping people from one place entering the country won’t protect us.

This variant is ultimately either more fit or it isn’t. As of this writing betting markets have the chance of Omicron becoming more than 1% of U.S. cases by the New Year at less than 50% though that could easily change and change quickly.

Pfizer’s Paxlovid should remain highly effective against it, since it isn’t targeting the spike protein. We need that approved now. We also need the cheap paper strip tests at around a buck or two apiece that I was writing about over a year ago, that much of Europe has finally gotten. That way you know if you’ve got Covid quickly and can take an effective antiviral (Paxlovid works best within 3 days of symptom onset) not to mention isolating when you’re infectious.

We’ve had terrible messaging on boosters, and as a result very low uptake, while tens of millions of vaccine doses expire in the U.S. (boosters aren’t the reason world vaccine supply remains constrained).

Science has given us the tools to address and manage this, we need to finally start treating this as a pandemic and get out of the way. Travel bans are window dressing, not serious policy at this point.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. WoW….Brandon banning black people. How racist! Good thing Mr. Meanie Orange Man is gone. BTW, how much did your last fill-up cost?

  2. Well said, Gary. Unfortunately the nuts will soon be espousing invalid conspiracy theories or ridiculous gibberish.

  3. Unfortunately, the new COVID variant spreading in South Africa is heading . . . well, everywhere. And nothing is going to stop it and it won’t be the last. In todays world a contagious and deadly virus has ample opportunity to mutate and continue doing so. That said, the only thing anyone can do is to do whatever it is that keeps them safe. For me that means wearing a mask, social distancing when necessary, and all of the other things I have done to keep from getting infected from the start of the pandemic. Looks like mother nature is going to take care of its biggest threat and that is man.

  4. Funny, wasn’t Gary writing just a few weeks ago that “The pandemic is almost over”?

    This, btw, is completely irresponsibe to post: “…it appears to be up to 500% more transmissible than the original Wuhan strain (by contrast, Delta is considered ~ 70% more transmissible).”

    Absolutely no evidence to say that…cases increasing rapidly in South Africa from a very low baseline doesn’t give any conclusive evidence about IF it is more transmissible or not…there’s some suggestion that it MIGHT be more more transmissible…but how much more transmissible is nothing but speculation at this point. Slow your roll here.

    And don’t take your public health advice or info from a travel blogger…

  5. Banning US citizens who test (SARS-COV-2) negative from flying to enter the US wouldn’t legally stand up.

  6. @Bob – “absolutely no evidence” is a rather odd claim when directly below my statement is the relevant evidence, appropriated caveated. And I update my views based on new evidence, as everyone should.

  7. I think that some of the reaction by governments and the public is because we got too comfortable and safe in the West. For most people diseases were “out there” in the Third World, and the memory of the 1918 pandemic (not to mention TB, polio, measles, etc.) was long gone. I(n India many years ago I met someone who said that Americans didn’t even realize how sterile their environment is, and I think she was right. In a way it’s like the thinking many in the U.S. seem to still have that nature can be “controlled”, and things like climate change won’t really matter to them. Just for one example, they don’t connect the dots between rising home insurance rates and more hurricanes and fires. The natural environment is giving us a hard lesson on just how the universe works. Writing rules against evolving viruses will work as well as King Canute”s apocryphal ordering of the waves to stop. We live with how things how, tilting them a bit in our favor with vaccines, or always will be playing catch up with reality.

  8. “This only applies to non-citizens (U.S. citizens can’t spread the new variant?)
    And it doesn’t start until Monday (we’ve asked the virus to wait before spreading because of the holiday weekend)”

    These comments are obnoxious. You can’t just shutdown the border while planes are in the air etc it creates complete chaos so they need to let all the people in transit make their way through the system. Also, you legally can’t bar US citizens from entering their own country. Hopefully they require mandatory quarantine of any citizens coming back from there until we have an answer about just what we are dealing with this variant.

  9. @Bill. Banning only non-residents underscores that the restriction is useless in containing the variant. In Amsterdam everyone off of South Africa flights were tested on arrival, effective immediately. None of that in the U.S. “Hopefully they require mandatory quarantine of any citizens coming back from there” nope, not happening, and in any case the virus isn’t only in Southern Africa.

  10. @Ron: “If nothing else, people are learning the Greek alphabet!”

    Not Gary. He keeps calling it Omnicron; not the correct spelling… Omicron.

  11. Even without a ban on US residents from a region, the ban on foreign visitors from a region has a chance to buy time and slow down how fast and how much a new variant concentrated in a region spreads to the US and around the US.

  12. David,

    Omnicron reminds him of the Transformers he watched at times before he came of age for The Jerry Springer Show. That, and/or he’s been checking out OMNI on FT. 😀

  13. “In Amsterdam everyone off of South Africa flights were tested on arrival, effective immediately.” Yea and approximately 85 out of the 600 people from south africa came back positive for Covid. Really makes a strong argument for a travel ban.

  14. @drrichard:

    I love the comment “ Americans didn’t even realize how sterile their environment is,”. Such a cute way of saying You Americans have your head in your asses.

  15. More “Follow The Science” from the first world.

    1) Hype something up.
    2) Instill Fear
    3) Do dumb things, that don’t work (travel bans, lockdowns, masks, non-sterilizing vaccines)
    4) As people catch on… don’t adjust! Do MORE, PUSH FOR MORE OF THE SAME
    5) Go back to 1

  16. why is president LETS GO BRANDON!!! banning people from Africa? travel bans are racist. if we are going to have a racist president I at least want the mean tweets

    where is nancy pelosi telling us to go and hug a person from southern africa?

    18 months sure and such an about face

  17. Once again Australia teaches the rest of the West how you protect citizens in a pandemic: NSW and Vic installed a 72-hour isolation requirements for all international arrivals (not by passport, not by country of origin) and, of course, testing on arrival. The US is such a third-world country nowadays.

    Also very sad to see people making the same arguments that failed America 20 months ago (it’s already here, what will one case do, etc.) not having learned a single thing from 700k+ deaths.

  18. @Ray…well put. It’s remarkable that so many “geniuses” even think about travel. Why aren’t they on Breitbart spreading Qanon nonsense and planning for arrival of JFK, jr in Dallas this past Monday?

    @Gary…you say that the ban of non-residents is “useless”. Wow. So that means it’s the equivalent of no ban at all. Do you understand that limiting the onslaught of the new variant will buy us time, get boosters to more people, and allow science precious weeks to tweak the vaccines if necessary.

    You can describe the ban as inadequate and bad policy if you want. But “useless” is completely off base.

  19. At this point, I don’t know why we’re even allowing international travel until the COVID threat subsides. International business can be conducted through videoconferencing, and tourism can wait.

  20. A new variant bleat the sheep! When Lord almighty our savior Fauci speaks, I will follow what he says…….bahhhhhhhh.

    More contagious doesn’t necessarily mean more deadly. Keep bleating the same tired song, we laugh at you and mock your obedience.

  21. @woketh one
    I think I’ll follow Fauci before I follow your nonsense. By the way, where did you say you received your Epidemiologist degree? What was that? Chump University? You must be a scientific genius.

  22. My sister is presently on an Anarctic Silversea Silver Cloud cruise. All 167 DOUBLE-VAXXED pax 1) had to present PCR tests prior to arrival in Chile–Chile, were >80% of the population is fully vaxxed!; 2) have rapid tests upon arrival in Santiago; 3) quarantine in a ‘bubble hotel’ for 48 hours, and Rapid Test again 4) fly in a “bubble” chartered jet to Punta Arenas to board the ship, where they were 5) rapid tested again before boarding. 36 hours later they were all Rapid Tested again. a week into the cruise, guess what? Five pax –one of whom has mild symptoms, the other four all asymptomtic–are showing positive on Covid tests, and they are unceremoniously unloaded on a remote airstrip, then air-vacced back to South America.

    I’m cringing as I read the updates from her. I'[m wondering, is this the way it’s going to be, ad infinitum? Because we will be going in circles, like a dog chasing its tail. Every sniffle, every cough, is going to generate neurotic behavior in society, with every positive test adding to the threat of yet another lockdown, regardless of the death rate.

    The coup de grace of all this is an update the Silver Cloud pax received from the South African Health Minister today: ““The new Omicron variant of the Coronavirus results in MILD disease, WITHOUT prominent symptoms.” -Angelique Coetzee, the chairwoman of the South African Medical Association.

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