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Biden restricts travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday

By Kaitlan Collins, CNN

President Joe Biden announced Friday the US will restrict travel from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday as a new coronavirus variant has emerged.

Acting on advice from the nation’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Biden administration will restrict travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

The decision to restrict travel comes as the federal government is still attempting to learn more about the new variant, named Omicron. They need to see more sequencing, but after discussing what they’ve seen so far, officials decided to halt travel from these other countries out of concern about what they don’t yet know.

Biden was briefed Friday on the new coronavirus variant circulating in southern Africa, he said in the announcement.

Officials said the policy was implemented out of an abundance of caution given the World Health Organization has now identified this as a variant of concern.

“Our scientists and public health officials are working quickly to learn more about this variant,” one official said.

A senior Biden administration official said several steps have to be taken before the restrictions begin on Monday, including a formal US proclamation, Transportation Security Administration directives and coordination with airlines.

“This is a quick timeline but there are things that need to be done beforehand,” the official said.

South Africa’s health minister announced Thursday the discovery of the variant, which appears to be spreading rapidly in parts of the country.

Currently, “there’s no indication” that the new variant is in the United States right now — and US scientists are working closely with colleagues in South Africa to learn more about the emerging variant, Fauci told CNN’s Brianna Keilar before the travel restrictions were announced Friday.

“Right now, we’re getting the material together with our South African colleagues to get a situation where you could actually directly test it. So, right now you’re talking about sort of like a red flag that this might be an issue — but we don’t know,” Fauci said.

“You want to find out if in fact it does evade the vaccines that we’re doing,” Fauci said when asked about potential travel restrictions. “You’re prepared to do everything you need to do to protect the American public, but you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that.”

Several other countries — including the United Kingdom — have banned flights from South Africa and surrounding African countries in response to the emergence of the variant.

The travel restrictions do not apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents. As with all international travelers, they must still test negative prior to travel.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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CNN’s Allie Malloy and Jeff Zeleny contributed to this report.

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