The U.S. is reevaluating the travel ban on eight southern African countries as more information about the omicron variant and its spread becomes available, White House medical adviser Anthony Fauci said Sunday.
“That ban was done at a time when we were really in the dark — we had no idea what was going on,” Fauci said in an interview with CNN’s “State of the Union.”
U.S. medical advisers are evaluating the new restrictions on “a daily basis” and Fauci said he was hopeful “we’ll be able to lift that ban in a quite reasonable period of time.”
The U.S. has barred entry from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. While the apparently highly contagious variant was first detected in South Africa, some of those countries aren’t yet reporting cases.
That’s prompted criticism from international officials, with United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres last week likening the restrictions to “travel apartheid.” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus called on countries to maintain “rational, proportional risk-reduction measures.”
U.S. officials have defended the restrictions as a way to buy time to learn more about the variant and develop possible countermeasures.
“Travel restrictions can buy you some time to do important things,” U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said on “Fox News Sunday.”
But the Biden administration indicated that with omicron detected in at least 16 states, it may reconsider. Fauci said he felt “very badly about the hardship” that the policy was placing on people from South Africa and neighboring countries.
“The bottom line is, these are meant to be temporary measures,” Murthy said.
Fauci also indicated that the U.S. was encouraged by reports from South African officals that the rapid spread of omicron hadn’t yet resulted in a spike in hospitalizations in that country, an indication that the strain could be less virulent. Still, he cautioned it was too soon to make any “definitive statements” about the variant and encouraged Americans to get vaccinations and booster shots.
“Thus far the signals have been encouraging regarding the severity, but again, you got to hold judgment until we get more experience,” Fauci said.
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