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US likely to lift travel ban on South Africa ‘pretty soon’ says Fauci

Business Insider SA

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Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Anthony Fauci gives an update on the Omicron COVID-19 variant during the daily press briefing at the White House on December 1, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Chen Mengtong/China News Service via Getty Images)
  • The United States reimposed a travel ban on South Africa following the discovery of the Omicron coronavirus variant at the end of November.
  • But now, with Omicron accounting for 73% of new cases recorded in the United States, the travel ban is redundant.
  • Banning travel gave the United States enough time to "figure out what was going on" with Omicron, but ultimately serves no further purpose, according to top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci.
  • "We're letting in people from other countries that have as much or more [Omicron] infection than the southern African countries," Fauci said at the National Press Club on Monday.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

Travel bans imposed on South Africa immediately following the discovery of the Omicron variant gave the United States enough time to "figure out what was going on" but will be lifted "pretty soon" according to top infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci.

South Africa's detection of the Omicron variant at the end of November was meant to perform a global service in the interest of public health amid the coronavirus pandemic. It was, instead, rewarded with a flurry of travel bans, described as unscientific and discriminatory, imposed by almost 70 countries in the weeks that followed.

Now, almost a month since South Africa first raised the Omicron alarm, the variant has been detected in at least 89 countries. It's become the dominant variant in England and Scotland, which only recently rescinded restrictions on travellers departing from South Africa. Omicron also now accounts for 73% of cases in the United States.

Despite Omicron dominating cases in the US, as in South Africa, the travel ban has held firm. Only returning citizens, or those who qualify for specific exemptions, are allowed to enter the US.

But this is likely to change soon, according to the US' top advisor on the Covid-19 pandemic, Fauci.

"I think when you get to the point when there's enough of a virus in your own country, it doesn't really make any sense of trying to keep it out, because this [Omicron] is spreading so rapidly right now," Fauci said at the National Press Club on Monday.

"In the beginning, if you want to buy some time, when you have very little [Omicron] if any in your own country, which is what we did with the southern African countries, to give us a chance to regroup and figure out what was going on, that made sense.

"We're likely going to pull back on that pretty soon, because we have enough [Omicron] infection in our own country and we're letting in people from other countries that have as much or more infection than the southern African countries."

A presidential proclamation issued by US President Joe Biden on 26 November, a day after scientists from South Africa's Network for Genomic Surveillance announced the discovery of Omicron, suspended entry to travellers who had been in Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, or South Africa.

While South Africa and the United States have a closer 7-day rolling average of daily new confirmed Covid-19 cases per million people, 323 and 419 respectively, there's a bigger disparity in new daily deaths. The US is recording around 3.7 new daily deaths per million people, whereas South Africa is recording less than 1.

Preliminary investigations by Discovery Health in collaboration with the South African Medical Research Council show that while Omicron is more transmissible, it results in fewer hospitalisations with severe symptoms compared to variants which drove previous waves.

(Compiled by Luke Daniel)

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