(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden imposed travel restrictions on nations in southern Africa, joining an international effort to slow the spread of a potentially potent new Covid-19 variant that roiled global markets.
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The administration will restrict travel to from South Africa and seven other countries starting Monday as a “precautionary measure until we have more information” about the omicron variant, Biden said in a statement on Friday.
The restrictions affect visitors who’ve been present within the past 14 days in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi. The policy doesn’t apply to American citizens and lawful permanent residents, though they must still test negative before travel to the U.S., according to administration officials. The U.K. reported its first cases Saturday.
The ban may fuel concern about the variant, which triggered a market sell-off as investors parsed emerging data about its potency and how quickly it spreads. The S&P 500 closed 2.3% lower during an abbreviated session on Friday, the biggest one-day drop since February, and the tech-heavy Nasdaq 100 Index lost 2.1%. The Bloomberg EMEA Airlines Index sank 11.3% on the day.
Biden told reporters the new variant is of “great concern” because “it seems to spread rapidly.” But he said he was “not at all” concerned about investors selling shares because it was “expected — they always do when Covid rises.”
The World Health Organization listed the mutated virus, now named Omicron, as a “variant of concern” Friday as a growing list of nations moved to block travel from the region. Countries across Europe halted air travel from southern Africa earlier in the day, as did Canada.
“As we move forward, we will continue to be guided by what the science and my medical team advises,” Biden said in the statement. “The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations.”
The announcement is a reversal of course for Biden’s administration, which this month abandoned country- or region-specific measures and replaced it with a system that hinges on a traveler’s vaccination status. Friday’s announcement leaves the U.S. with a hybrid system of travel bans on unvaccinated foreigners as well as a broader ban on the eight countries designated Friday, which have comparatively lower vaccination levels.
The measure broadly applies to people who don’t hold U.S. citizenship or permanent residency. Exemptions include citizens, permanent residents, non-citizen spouses of either, non-citizens who are parents of unmarried younger Americans and certain foreign government visa holders, among others. The 14-day clause means that vaccinated people from the affected countries could visit the U.S. if they spent two weeks in another region beforehand and obtained a negative test within three days of entry.
Anthony Fauci, one of Biden’s top health advisers, said Friday that officials would act after reviewing scientific data with counterparts in South Africa. Biden said he made the decision after a briefing by Fauci and members of his Covid-19 response team.
American health officials spoke with their South African counterparts midday New York time on Friday to gather medical and scientific data about the newly discovered variant. The administration remains in touch with health experts across southern Africa to learn more about the variant.
Biden again urged Americans to get vaccinated, and to get booster shots, to bolster their own protection. All U.S. adults are eligible for boosters six months after their second dose, or two months after receiving Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine.
Biden also called on other nations to step up donations of vaccines and for a World Trade Organization ministerial meeting next week “to waive intellectual property protections for Covid vaccines, so these vaccines can be manufactured globally.”
The fear is that the mutated new coronavirus may be more resistant to vaccinations or the body’s own immune response after earlier infections.
The significance of a U.S. ban on flights from southern Africa isn’t clear since there are few direct flights between the U.S. and South Africa. The market between the region and the U.S. is relatively small compared to domestic travel and other international destinations, such as Europe.
The restrictions threaten to undo progress the airline industry has had with growing domestic travel and the reopening this month of U.S.-European travel. Other governments, including Hong Kong, have enacted travel restrictions from the region.
“Amid this rapidly evolving situation, it is critical that U.S. government decisions regarding international travel restrictions and requirements be rooted in science,” said Carter Yang, a spokesman for Airlines for America, the trade group for large U.S. carriers.
“International travel is critical to reviving economies around the globe, supporting millions of jobs in the U.S. and abroad, reinvigorating communities and reuniting families,” Yang added.
(Updates with details of U.S. measures in third and ninth paragraphs.)
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