Biden to impose South Africa travel ban to combat new Covid-19 variant

On Monday US president Joe Biden will also reimpose an entry ban on nearly all non-US travelers who have been in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland and 26 countries in Europe that allow travel across open borders.

US President Joe Biden will impose a ban on most non-US citizens entering the country who have recently been in South Africa starting on Saturday in a bid to contain the spread of a new variant of Covid-19, a senior US public health official told Reuters.

On Monday Biden will also reimpose an entry ban on nearly all non-US travelers who have been in Brazil, the United Kingdom, Ireland and 26 countries in Europe that allow travel across open borders.

“We are adding SA to the restricted list because of the concerning variant present that has already spread beyond SA,” Dr Anne Schuchat, the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) principal deputy director, said on Sunday.

She said the agency was “putting in place this suite of measures to protect Americans and also to reduce the risk of these variants spreading and worsening the pandemic”.

Former president Donald Trump directed on January 18 that those restrictions on Brazil and Europe be lifted effective from Tuesday, but Biden’s proclamation will rescind that decision.

Biden, who took office last Wednesday, is taking an aggressive approach to combating the spread of the coronavirus after Trump rejected mandates sought by US health agencies.

Some health officials are concerned current vaccines may not be effective against the SA variant, which also raises the prospect of reinfection.

The SA variant, also known as the 501Y.V2 variant, is 50% more infectious and has been detected in at least 20 countries.

CDC officials told Reuters they would be open to adding additional countries to the list if needed.

The 501Y.V2 variant has not yet been found in the US but at least states have detected a UK variant known as B.1.1.7. Current vaccines appear effective against the UK mutations.

The SA embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

CDC orders coming

CDC director  Rochelle Walensky will sign a separate order on Monday requiring people to wear masks on all airplanes, ferries, trains, subways, buses, taxis, and ride-share vehicles for all travelers two years and older, officials said. The new requirements are set to take effect in the coming days, they said. Masks can be removed for brief periods while eating or drinking.

On Tuesday, new CDC rules take effect requiring all international air travelers two years and older to present a negative coronavirus test taken within three calendar days of travel or proof of recovery from Covid-19 to enter the US.

The CDC will not, as it said on January 12, consider granting temporary waivers to airlines to exempt some travelers from countries with limited testing capacity. Some US airlines last week asked CDC for waivers, airline officials said.

CDC officials said they would consider case-by-case humanitarian exemptions for some travelers if needed.

The officials noted 120 countries currently have mandatory Covid-19 testing requirements for international travel.

The CDC order says travelers should self-quarantine for seven days upon return to the US and consider getting a new Covid-19 test within three to five days of returning to the country.

“With the pandemic worsening and these more contagious variants emerging, it’s not the time to lift restrictions on international travel,” Schuchat said.

CDC officials have for weeks discussed the possibility of adding these testing requirements before US domestic flights or requiring testing upon return from international travel but have not made decisions.

The US restrictions barring most visitors from Europe have been in place since mid-March last year when Trump signed proclamations imposing them, while the Brazilian entry ban was imposed in May. The restriction, along with the new SA ones, mean most non-US citizens who have been in one of those countries within the last 14 days are not eligible to travel to the US.

Permanent US residents and family members and some other non-US citizens are permitted to return to the country under the order.

Under Trump, the CDC push to mandate masks in transit was blocked and the agency instead only issued strong recommendations for mask use. Officials initially blocked mandating Covid-19 testing for travelers from the UK before relenting on December 24.

Trump opposed efforts by Congress to require masks in transit.

Airlines have required passengers to wear masks and some local governments mandate mask use.

By David Shepardson