WASHINGTON: The United States announced Friday it is restricting travel from eight southern African countries over fears of a new variant of Covid-19 detected in South Africa.
Travel will be mostly banned starting Monday from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi, a senior official in President Joe Biden's administration said.
Only US citizens and permanent residents will still be able to travel from the eight countries, the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added.
"The policy was implemented out of an abundance of caution in light of a new Covid-19 variant circulating in Southern Africa," the official said.
"Our scientists and public health officials are working quickly to learn more about this variant," the official added.
"President Biden has promised to take every measure necessary to keep Americans safe and defeat the pandemic, and this was a step recommended by US government medical experts and the Covid-19 Response Team."
Canada announced Friday it is banning the entry of foreign nationals who have travelled through southern Africa in the last 14 days after discovery of the new omicron variant of the coronavirus that has stoked world fears and triggered widespread travel bans.
Government ministers also said testing will be mandatory for all Canadians who have travelled to southern Africa in the last 14 days.
They will be tested on arrival and must quarantine until they get a negative test result.
Those who have arrived in Canada in the last 14 days were also asked to quarantine and get a COVID-19 test.
There are no direct flights from southern Africa to Canada.
Officials said there is no indication of any cases in Canada.
The new COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529, first detected from South Africa, was on Friday designated as a "Variant of Concern" by the World Health Organisation, which named it "omicron".
A "variant of concern" is the WHO's top category of worrying Covid variants.
The WHO said the Technical Advisory Group on SARS-CoV-2 Virus Evolution (TAG-VE), an independent group of experts that periodically monitors and evaluates the evolution of SARS-CoV-2 and assesses if specific mutations and combinations of mutations alter the behaviour of the virus, convened on Friday to assess the B.1.1.529 variant, first reported to the world health body from South Africa on November 24.
Based on the evidence presented indicative of a detrimental change in COVID-19 epidemiology, the TAG-VE has advised WHO that this "variant should be designated as a Variant of Concern, and the WHO has designated B.1.1.529 as a VOC, named Omicron".
Countries are asked to enhance surveillance and sequencing efforts to better understand circulating SARS-CoV-2 variants, submit complete genome sequences and associated metadata to a publicly available database, such as GISAID and report initial cases/clusters associated with VOC infection to WHO through the IHR mechanism.
Countries are also advised that where capacity exists and in coordination with the international community, they should perform field investigations and laboratory assessments to improve understanding of the potential impacts of the VOC on COVID-19 epidemiology, severity, effectiveness of public health and social measures, diagnostic methods, immune responses, antibody neutralisation, or other relevant characteristics.
"The epidemiological situation in South Africa has been characterised by three distinct peaks in reported cases, the latest of which was predominantly the Delta variant. In recent weeks, infections have increased steeply, coinciding with the detection of B.1.1.529 variant," WHO said, adding that the first known confirmed B.1.1.529 infection was from a specimen collected on November 9.
WHO said the B.1.1.529 variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are "concerning".
Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs.
The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa.
WHO said current SARS-CoV-2 PCR diagnostics continue to detect this variant.
Several labs have indicated that for one widely used PCR test, one of the three target genes is not detected (called S gene dropout or S gene target failure) and this test can therefore be used as marker for this variant, pending sequencing confirmation.
"Using this approach, this variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage," the global health organisation said.
WHO added that there are a number of studies underway and the TAG-VE will continue to evaluate this variant.
WHO will communicate new findings with the member states and to the public as needed.
(With Agencies' Inputs)